SYDNEY - Drought-ravaged parts of rural Australia have been hit by dust storms that threaten to drift over more heavily populated cities including Sydney, bringing a new element to the extreme weather that has dominated the country over summer.
The vast clouds of thick red dust have smothered inland towns such as Dubbo in the country's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), adding to the run of unusual weather that has disrupted the country since hundreds of bush fires broke out in September.
"I'm just over it," said Ms Tanya Fulton, manager of the council swimming pool at Tottenham, a town of 300 people about 500km west of Sydney, which was closed last Saturday (Jan 18) because of dust in the water.
"I couldn't even see the bottom of the big pool, and the toddlers' pool was all mud," Ms Fulton added by telephone.
The storms lashing NSW and neighbouring Victoria state have interrupted a few days' respite from the high temperatures and dry winds that have fanned bush fires across an area one-third the size of Germany, killing 29 people and an estimated one billion native animals.
In Canberra, the national capital, cricket ball-sized hailstones smashed car windows on Monday. Residents posted videos on social media of themselves sledding through streets in T-shirts.
Earlier this month, the authorities urged people in Canberra to stay indoors as bush fire smoke left the air among the most toxic in the world.
The smoke also disrupted preparations for the Australian Open in Melbourne last week, although the first Grand Slam of the year got under way on Monday in relatively clean air.
The storms were forecast to hit Sydney late on Monday, prompting No. 2 airline Virgin Australia to cut some flights, the company said in an e-mail. Larger Qantas Airways said it had cancelled three flights.
The storms were also expected to hit hundreds of kilometres of coastline to the city's south, the site of mass evacuations weeks earlier as fires destroyed homes and wiped out swathes of forest.
The area had received heavy rain but no hail or dust clouds by Monday afternoon, residents said.
"We're just trying to get over what we've experienced on New Year's Eve and the weeks before and after," said Mr Guy Chapman, general manager of Club Catalina, a golf club at Batemans Bay, 280km to Sydney's south.
"We can certainly do with the rain," he added.