Winds fan emergency-level fires in Australian southeast

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Hundreds of schools were closed and residents were urged to evacuate woodlands for the relative safety of city centers Tuesday as hot, dry and windy weather fanned wildfires to emergency-level ferocity across Australia's most populous state.

New South Wales state is under a weeklong state of emergency, a declaration that gives the Rural Fire Service sweeping powers to control resources and direct other government agencies in its efforts to battle fires. The worst fires are expected in the state's northeast, where three people have died and more than 150 homes have been destroyed since Friday, as well as around Sydney, Australia's largest city.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said 3,000 firefighters were available to fight more than 50 fires blazing across the state. The fires are expected to worsen as winds are forecast to gust at between 70 kmh (43 mph) and 90 kmh (56 mph) later Tuesday.

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"Now is the time to exercise those decisions to leave, leave early and go to safer locations, safer towns and villages or safer places in your local community, such as the shopping centers," Fitzsimmons told reporters.

"We plan for these sorts of days. But we always hope they never come," he added.

None of the fires were rated as emergencies in the morning. But by early afternoon, emergency warnings applied to seven blazes that were burning out of control in the fire-ravaged northeast.

More than 600 schools and technical colleges were closed because they are close to woodlands at risk of fire.

The Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, has started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.

More than 1 million hectares (3,800 square miles) of forest and farmland had already burned across the state this fire season, more than three times the 280,000 hectares (1,080 square miles) that burned during the entire last season, Fitzsimmons said.

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