A burnt car is seen among the charred trees in Lithgow, in Australia’s New South Wales, on Saturday. Photo: AFP

SYDNEY: Forecasts of heavy rain offered hope yesterday in the months-long battle to contain Australia’s unprecedented bushfires, but smoke lifted pollution levels in the nation’s second biggest city to among the worst in the world.

Cool weather over recent days has already given some respite for exhausted firefighters spread out across vast swathes of the country, with some of the biggest blazes now brought under control.

Optimism was further boosted yesterday with heavy rain forecast for some of the hotspots in the most populated eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria.

“It’s some pretty good news,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. “We’ve been talking about it for months now, that January might see the first fall of decent rain, and that looks like what’s coming along over the next few days.”

However, dozens of fires remained out of control and, with many weeks of hot weather still expected throughout Australia’s summer, there was no suggestion the crisis would end soon.

A burnt car is seen among the charred trees in Lithgow, in Australia’s New South Wales, on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Toxic smoke from the blazes also blew overnight into the Victorian capital of Melbourne, which is due to stage the Australian Open tennis tournament next week.

Pollution in Melbourne, which is normally ranked as among the world’s most liveable cities, was rated “hazardous”, with health authorities warning people to stay indoors.

Practice sessions for world number one Rafael Nadal and some of the other big names in tennis were suspended yesterday.

Still, the hazy conditions were not expected to last all week in Melbourne, with a change in wind direction and the forecast wet weather over the coming days set to clear the air.

The bushfires have killed at least 27 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 100,000 square kilometres of land — an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.

Australia endures bushfires every summer.

However climate change and a prolonged drought have contributed to the current crisis, with the blazes starting much earlier than normal and lasting for far longer. – AFP