Since September, hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people as well as an estimated 1 billion native animals, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany
Soaring temperatures and strong winds stoked bushfires in Australia's southeast on Thursday, with Sydney forecast to hit 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 Fahrenheit) following a few days of cooler weather.
A fire in the Snowy Mountains region and one in the Bega Valley on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) state both flared up, with emergency authorities warning residents to get out if they did not plan to defend their properties.
"Fire dangers are just starting to peak, and we're in for a long afternoon and night across many areas of NSW," the state's Rural Fire Service said on its Twitter account.
The Bureau of Meteorology warned that "damaging winds" were driving up fire dangers in some regions, while the country's biggest city was again forecast to wallow in hazardous air quality levels under smoke palls from some 90 blazes burning across the state.
Since September, hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people as well as an estimated 1 billion native animals, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany.
The disaster hit the Christmas and summer holiday season, emptying out caravan parks and hotels, devastating peak earnings for businesses dependent on domestic and foreign tourists.
The Australian Tourism Industry Council estimated the revenue loss industry-wide at A$2 billion ($1.4 billion), including forward sales and the physical damage to tourism facilities across regions ravaged by bushfires.
"Whatever the numbers ultimately land at, it's had a significant impact," said Simon Westaway, executive director of the council, which represents small and medium-sized tourism businesses.
Cancellation rates hit 100% in fire-affected areas while tourist facilities even in areas not affected by fires were hit with cancellation rates of around 60%, and there is evidence of international booking cancellations too, he said.
"People see a state of emergency and don't know if they'll be able to get in or out," Westaway told Reuters. "This contagion has really swept across the industry."
Here are today's key events in the bushfire crisis:
* NSW firefighters were tackling 90 fires, with one in the Snowy Mountains area and one on the south coast in Bega Valley at emergency warning levels. In Victoria state there were 17 blazes, with one of those, in the state's northeast, at the "watch and act" warning level.
* Sydney was set for a hot and windy day, with a high temperature of 41 degrees Celsius, while the capital Canberra was forecast to hit 33 degrees C, accompanied by windy conditions and dust haze, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
* Heavy rain in Melbourne dumped dust fanned up by heavy winds into the Yarra River. However, air quality in the city was rated "good" as the rain doused haze that had affected players at the Australian Open tennis tournament. Last week, a player collapsed in a coughing fit from bushfire smoke during qualifying rounds.
* A forest fire near the airport in Canberra, which had triggered evacuation warnings in the capital's eastern suburbs on Wednesday, was under control with no properties under threat, authorities said.
* The Victorian state government on Thursday said it would spend A$17.5 million immediately to save wildlife hit by the bushfires. It planned to focus on species most at risk, including the brush-tailed rock wallaby, the state's most endangered mammal, and the long-footed potaroo and large brown tree frog.
* Economists have estimated the cost of the bushfires to Australia's A$1.95 trillion ($1.33 trillion) economy could be as high as A$5 billion ($3.4 billion). That would shave around 0.25 points off gross domestic product in the December and March quarters, a development that could prompt the country's central bank to cut rates as early as February and lower its growth projections.
* United Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella on Wednesday said the airline was watching routes in Australia very carefully. "The wildfires really had some impact on demand, so we'll keep a close eye on that," he told analysts on an earnings call.
* A Reuters analysis shows that Australian animals living in specific habitats, such as mountain lizards, leaf-tailed geckos and pear-shaped frogs, are battling the threat of extinction after fierce bushfires razed large areas of their homes.