New South Wales Rural Fire Service firetruck is seen at a hazard reduction burn site in Sydney, Australia, 10 September 2023; Credit: Reuters/Cordelia Hsu/File Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) - On Saturday 9 December 2023, Australia's southeast sweated through a heatwave that raised the risk of bushfires and led authorities to ban fires in large parts of New South Wales state.

The nation's weather forecaster predicted a maximum temperature in Sydney, Australia's most populous city, of 40 degrees Celsius, almost 15 degrees above the average December high for the city.

At Observatory Hill in the centre of Sydney, the capital of News South Wales, the temperature was 38.9 C at 13:00 (02:00 GMT) on Saturday, according to forecaster data.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in Sydney it was "a time to ensure that we look after each other and stay safe".

"Today in Sydney, and in other parts of the east coast, it's a reminder that there just might be something in this climate change stuff," Albanese said, according to a transcript.

The heat heightens the risk of bushfires in an already high-risk fire season during Australia's December-February summer due to an El Niño weather event, typically associated with extremes such as wildfires, cyclones and droughts.

New South Wales fire authorities said on social media platform X that a fire ban was in place for large swaths of the state, including Sydney, given "very hot, dry and windy conditions" brought by warm northwesterly winds.

There were 71 grass and bushfires - 21 of them uncontained - burning across New South Wales on Saturday, the state's Rural Fire Service said.

Authorities are concerned about a return of dangerous fire conditions this summer after Australia's last two fire seasons were quiet compared with the 2019-2020 "Black Summer" that destroyed an area the size of Turkey and killed 33 people.

In a warning on Friday 8 December 2023, the forecaster said "severe heatwave conditions" would continue in much of New South Wales into next week, with peak temperatures predicted for the weekend.

At Sydney's Coogee Beach, head lifeguard Clive Stiff said the extreme heat meant a busy Saturday for those on patrol.

"We're mostly worried about sun safety and hydration, both for members of the public and members of the Patrol of course," Stiff said.

Beachgoer Carley Carr took a more relaxed view of the heat. "It's about time that we had a good summer. So we'll be down at the beach probably early and staying inside for middle of the day," Carr said.