Firefighter watches a helicopter fly away

Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Australia, a country on fire

A firefighter watches as a helicopter flies away to perform water-bombing operations against a bushfire that is scorching the Sandhills of Bungendore on Jan. 9 in New South Wales, Australia.

In the midst of what could be one of Australia's hottest summers on record, thousands of firefighters are battling 140 bushfires ravaging New South Wales. Authorities have rated the string of bushfires as "catastrophic," meaning that the flames are fast, uncontained, uncontrollable and unpredictable.

The weather is so hot and dry in the Land Down Under that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology was forced to add an entirely new color to its heat index maps. In the map below, the purple splotch reflects a record-breaking 129.2 degrees observed on Jan. 8.

Heat index map of Australia

Image: Australia Bureau of Meteorology

This new record temperature leaps 6 degrees above the previous record high of 123 degrees, which was recorded in 1960 at the Oodnadatta Airport in South Australia.

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Ominous bushfire clouds

Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Murky billowing smoke

The sun appears red through the thick, dark clouds produced by a nearby bushfire on Jan. 4 near Mount Wellington in Hobart, Australia.

After enduring yesterday's scorcher, Australians woke up to slightly cooler temperatures that rolled in overnight. Firefighters took advantage of this welcome respite by reigning in several of the bushfires, though 30 of them remain uncontained.

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Home destroyed by bushfire

Photo: Chris Kidd/AFP/Getty Images

Tasmania's fiery ordeal

The charred remains of a house destroyed by a bushfire is seen in this aerial view on Jan. 5 between Dunalley and Boomer Bayon on the Australian island of Tasmania.

As the Australian mainland battles the flames, Tasmania is dealing with its own fiery problems. Thousands of people on the island fled their homes after fires burned more than 148,000 acres of land and destroyed more than 100 properties.

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Firefighters extinguish flames in a forest

Photo: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Putting out the flames

Firefighters douse burning logs set alight by a fire on Jan, 9 near Nowra, New South Wales, Australia.

Although many of the flames are under control, firefighters remain on guard as temperatures are predicted to rise again later in the week.


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Ominous bushfire clouds

Photo: Pamela Martin/Getty Images

Ominous sky

Smoke rises from a distant wildfire on Jan. 8 in Nimmitabel, New South Wales, Australia.

To avoid sparking any new flames, New South Wales has declared a total fire ban within the state's Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Southern Ranges regions.

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Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.

Australia grapples with bushfires fueled by record-breaking heat [Photos]
In the midst of a major heat wave in Australia, thousands of firefighters are battling bushfires ravaging New South Wales and Tasmania.