CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned the nation on Wednesday to brace for a severe bushfire season as fire crews battled intense blazes stoking memories of infernos earlier this year which killed 173 people.
With the fire season barely under way, firefighters from two Australian states have been battling huge blazes threatening the northeastern tropical city of Rockhampton and coastal hamlets further south in New South Wales.
"I would urge all Australians to make sure they are fully prepared for the challenges which will be alive during this bushfire season," Rudd told parliament.
Authorities have warned the current fire season could rival "Black Saturday" blazes in February which scorched through southern Victoria state, destroying more than 2,000 homes and leaving behind a A$1.12 billion ($1.04 billion) insurance bill.
Those fires, fanned by a heat wave and winds topping 100 km per hour, caused the highest ever loss of life from bushfire in the world's most fire-prone country.
But with drought, climate change and dry forest undergrowth combining to create perfect fire conditions across much of the country, authorities say the December-February summer months could bring the highest fire risk Australia has ever faced.
Australia has begun preparing more than 1,000 "last-resort" fire refuges for the coming summer and this month recast its national alert system to warn residents of "catastrophic" bushfire conditions making homes and property undefendable.
Authorities in Victoria have also suggested the government consider tough electronic monitoring of known arsonists to prevent a repeat of this year's disastrous bushfires, which could see firebugs barred from entering fire-prone areas.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)