Canberra - The number of people killed in Australia's devastating bushfire season, which started in September, has increased to 26 after a forest fire management worker's death was confirmed on Wednesday.
The father-of-two lost his life in a vehicle crash while fighting bushfires in the state of Victoria on January 3.
The state's emergency services minister Lisa Neville told reporters on Wednesday that following a police investigation it was confirmed that the death was related to the bushfires.
Fire crews in south-eastern Australia were taking advantage of cooler weather on Wednesday, getting on top of blazes and conducting controlled back-burning before more extreme weather conditions later in the week.
More than 120 fires continue to burn across New South Wales, with 50 uncontained. While in Victoria more than 40 bushfires are burning, with about a dozen beginning to merge.
Both states have seen some rain, including in the bushfire affected areas, on Tuesday and Wednesday. But the authorities also asked people in several towns in fire danger areas to evacuate early as extreme fire conditions were forecast for Friday.
The milder conditions have been used to good effect by fire crews, New South Wales Emergency Services Minister David Elliott told reporters on Wednesday, while noting more extreme weahter days are ahead.
Conditions are expected to worsen on Friday, with temperatures forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius across parts of the eastern states, with strong winds threatening to fan bushfire activity.
The Gospers Mountain "megafire," which has already burned more than half a million hectares in Sydney's north-west, could be contained by Friday, Elliot said, adding "I think we have reached the peak."
New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) said on Tuesday that almost 1,700 homes have been completely destroyed and 700 others damaged since September as the on-the-ground assessment continues.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited South Australia's Kangaroo Island on Wednesday, where more than 160,000 hectares have burned so far.
The conditions on the island and across the country was "shocking and terrifying," Morrison told reporters.
Local wildlife officials said up to 25,000 koalas, or half of the population on the island, may have died.
Weather conditions are forecast to worsen on Kangaroo Island on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the smoke haze has returned to Sydney after a few days of reprieve, making the air quality in the city's east "hazardous" and in the west "very poor," according to the New South Wales health department.
More than one million P2 particulate-filter masks are being delivered to bushfire zones in the state, state health minister Brad Hazzard said.
The air quality in Melbourne and Canberra also continues to be "hazardous" due to smokes from bushfires.
The Bureau of Meteorology has said smoke haze from the Victorian fires will likely reach Tasmania late Thursday.
A "mega-fire" is also in the process of forming in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria along the Great Dividing Range, as several bushfires continue to burn, closing the gaps between them, fire authorities in both the states said.
Victorian authorities also asked organizers of a climate protest planned for Friday in Melbourne to postpone the rally due to police being stretched across fire-ravaged rural areas.
"I am just stunned and I would ask them to reconsider - there is a time for protests, and it is not this Friday," Neville told reporters.
Meanwhile, several firefighter organizations and unions have called for a federal royal commission into Australia's bushfires to look into resourcing, coordination, inter-state communication, training and fatigue as critical issues.
Royal commissions are convened in Australia on issues of special public importance and have extensive investigative powers. Morrison said Wednesday he would consider one.
Elsewhere, residents across numerous rural communities in northern Australia have been warned to prepare for damaging winds, rain and floods ahead of the season's first tropical cyclone on Friday.
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