Australia's most populous state prepares for extreme fires

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Hundreds of schools remained closed across Australia's most populous state on Tuesday, and residents were urged to evacuate woodlands for the relative safety of city centers as authorities braced for extreme fire danger.

New South Wales on Monday declared a weeklong state of emergency in preparation for Tuesday's hot, dry and windy conditions. The declaration gives the Rural Fire Service sweeping powers to control resources and direct other government agencies.

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.

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.

"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.

More than 600 schools and technical colleges across the state are closed on Tuesday because they are close to woodlands at risk of fire.

The annual 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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