By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Intense thunderstorms with heavy rains dampened bushfires on Australia's east coast on Friday, to the relief of exhausted firefighters and farmers battling years of drought, and granting a reprieve to the organisers of next week's Australian Open.
Australia, famous for its pristine beaches and wildlife, has been fighting bushfires since September, with fires killing 29 people and millions of animals, and destroying more than 2,500 homes while razing an area roughly a third the size of Germany.
Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, three of the states most affected by drought and bushfires welcomed this week's drenching rain, with fire services saying it would not extinguish all the blazes, but would greatly aid containment.
"Our fingers are crossed that this continues over the coming days," New South Wales fire services said on Twitter on Friday.
Severe storms are forecast to continue in many fire-stricken regions of New South Wales and Queensland, including areas that have not seen heavy falls for years, weather officials in New South Wales said, slightly easing a three-year drought.
"The recent rain has just been absolutely fantastic," said cattle farmer Sam White near the northern town of Guyra in New South Wales.
"It's producing significant amounts of runoff, which is what we need, and it's getting into our dams."
While the wet weather brings relief to fire fighters and drought-hit farmers, it also comes with dangers, such as flash flooding and falling trees. One wildlife park had to rescue koalas from floodwaters and beat back crocodiles with brooms.
The heavy downpours have helped to clean smoky air in Australia, but Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne remained in the world's top 100 polluted cities on Friday, a pollution ranking by AirVisual showed.
Melbourne, shrouded this week in thick smoke that disrupted the Australian Open qualifying matches and other competitions, is forecast to again be blanketed by unhealthy air over the weekend, before the Grand Slam begins in earnest on Monday.
But fears the smoke would return on Saturday for the final round of qualifying eased on Friday, when the Environmental Protection Agency forecast air quality in the Melbourne area would be "moderate" rather than "very poor".
The smoke haze plaguing Australia's major cities for weeks has been tracked by NASA circumnavigating the globe and the space agency's satellites showed on Thursday there was also a large concentration of lower smoke over the Pacific Ocean.
Here are key events in the bushfire crisis:
* Early on Friday, 82 fires were burning across New South Wales, 30 uncontained, and several in Victoria, fire authorities said.
* An emergency evacuation order was issued for parts of Victoria's northeast, with an out-of-control bushfire threatening the Buffalo River Valley.
* Firefighters, family and the community of Holbrook in New South Wales bade farewell to Samuel McPaul, a 28-year-old volunteer who died in December while fighting a massive and fast-moving blaze.
* Australia will have to wait until March for rains heavy enough to bring sustained relief from dry weather that has fuelled the bushfires, the weather bureau said.
* Top tourism body estimates the bushfire crisis has cost the Australian industry almost A$1 billion ($690 million). [L4N29L069]
* Players' complaints about pollution blighted qualifying rounds of the Australian Open in Melbourne, the year's first tennis Grand Slam.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)