SYDNEY sweltered in near record-breaking heat yesterday as the temperature climbed above 40 degrees across the city just after 3pm. At the airport the mercury hit 42.5, pipping Penrith's high of 42.1. And the metropolitan heat was almost as fierce as the 43 recorded in the state's north-west at Walgett.
A total fire ban was in place in Sydney, the Hunter, the Illawarra and much of the state as 1700 firefighters tackled about 130 fires, mainly in the Central West. About 12,000 hectares were burnt but only one house was lost.
This month is now likely to be Australia's hottest November, and July to November are likely to be the hottest winter to spring on record, said David Jones, head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology.
The last time Sydney temperatures came close to these November highs was in 1982.,
''It's not just unusual, it's unprecedented,'' Dr Jones said.
The swathes of rural NSW battling drought also increased this month: 73.6 per cent of the state has been officially drought-declared, up from 67.7 per cent last month. The area considered ''satisfactory'' has fallen to 1.9 per cent of the state, and the rest is only marginal.
The Primary Industries Minister, Tony Kelly, said: ''These figures illustrate the tough conditions in country NSW, with almost the entire state now feeling the effects of this relentless dry.
''Not even coastal areas of NSW have escaped - they are either drought-declared or suffering marginal conditions.''
The hot, dry conditions have affected the state's wheat and cotton crops, and if conditions remain hot and dry, many farmers will face problems getting water for sheep and cattle.
A cool change was expected to bring relief to Sydney last night, with lower temperatures, possible thunderstorms and high winds. Today and tomorrow were expected to remain cool, but the heat was likely to return later in the week.
The outlook for summer is for more hot weather, and hot nights.
But there is a chance of the El Nino event weakening and bringing some wet weather.
After sweltering in high temperatures last week, a 50 millimetre deluge hit Melbourne at the weekend, with overnight rains notching up the city's wettest 24 hours for the month in four years.
Dr Jones said sweltering temperatures pointed to a climate change story, and it was now difficult to separate climate change from natural variability in the weather.
But clearly such extreme swings in weather patterns can go either way.
A year ago today Sydney had one of its lowest November temperatures, a minimum of 12.2 - about 20 degrees lower than yesterday.