WHILE Perth residents took to the beach in 34C (93F) heat yesterday, Victorians enjoyed a white Christmas as snow doused bushfires.
Heavy snow transformed the fire-blackened landscape in Victoria's east into a brilliant white as Melburnians, shrouded by smoke for the past fortnight, had their coldest-ever Christmas Day and were pelted with hail and chilled by biting winds.
Just days after fearing deadly fires would destroy their mountain, residents atop Mt Buller, northeast of Melbourne, were hurling snowballs at each other and shaking their heads in amazement. Likewise, in parts of Tasmania, and Thredbo, in the NSW snow territory, snowmen were the order of the day.
As much as 30mm of snow fell at Mt Baw Baw overnight.
"I've never seen snow fall before in my life, so I thought it would be worth it on Christmas Day just to go up there and have a look," 25-year-old Peter Tuffley said, gripping girlfriend Andrea Innes in the thick snow. "I loved it, it was great."
There is more on the way for Thredbo and Perisher in NSW. Adelaide shivered through its coldest Christmas Day in 13 years. And Hobart hasn't had a Christmas quite as cold in more than two decades. And the weather was amiss in Sydney, too, where the traditional backpacker pilgrimage to Bondi was subdued - only about 10,000 of the usual 40,000 plonked themselves down on the famous stretch - because of the cooler temperatures and the early-morning drizzle.
At Perth's Cottesloe Beach, Deb Webb and her group of family and friends were among 10,000 crammed on to the city beaches.
"Same beach, same time, same beer and champagne every year," she said yesterday.
The group gathers at the beach each Christmas morning for champagne and strawberries and nibblies in the sun before heading home for a full festive dinner.
But in Victoria, it was the coldest Christmas Day in 150 years that brought "significant" amounts of snow to Victoria's southern regions, including a 30mm drop at Mount Baw Baw, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
"I don't think I've seen Christmas spirits like this for a long time. Maybe because there's a sigh of relief because of the fire (threat) being dampened for a little bit longer ... everyone is elated," Mt Buller Chalet's Eric Siewart said.
Local Jacqui Whitby said she was "ecstatic" to see snow. "This is what we all live up here for - for the snow," she told The Australian. "So to have it on Christmas Day, given what we've faced in the last three weeks, is just unbelievable and there's a lot of happy faces around."
Country Fire Authority captain Andrew Kelly said the snow "settled" the fires in the region and gave crew members a rest ahead of more fires expected by the end of the week when temperatures begin to rise again.
"The snow's been unreal, really good for Christmas," he said.
Weatherwatch's Don White said the wet and cool conditions were caused by a low-pressure system in the Tasman pushing up winds from the south across the southeast corner of the country.
"And they're fast-moving, so consequently they don't have a chance to warm up a lot by the time they hit the Australian mainland," he said. "They bring the snow because there's temperatures low enough to produce snow."
While the cool and wet conditions had all but a few hundred firefighters home for Christmas Day, the longer term forecast is not promising.
The dominant weather patterns, which have created appalling bushfire conditions and made the lives of many farmers so miserable, will persist throughout summer and into early autumn. Mr White said there was not expected to be any major rainfall at least until March.
Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Ward Rooney said southerly winds were expected to keep the temperatures down in the region until Thursday before a forecast warm change sweeps in and begins to build up into the weekend.