Jan. 8 (UPI) -- Pope Francis called for prayers Wednesday for the people of Australia as they continue to deal with an unprecedented wave of deadly wildfires that officials say will get worse in the coming days.
Francis made the remarks to visiting Australian pilgrims during his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
Asking for prayers to help those affected during a difficult time, the pontiff added that he's "close to the Australian people."
Residents in the southeast Australia face worsening weather conditions and another round of evacuations due to the fires, which have so far killed more than two dozen people and burned about 24 million acres -- half of that amount in New South Wales alone.
Officials warned tourists to stay away from the hard-hit South Coast region, which they said faces '"very high" fire danger on Thursday and Friday after several days of cooler conditions allowed crews to reinforce containment lines and conduct back-burning operations.
In Victoria state, emergency management officials said the fire danger is likely to rise to extreme levels on Friday with the arrival of strong, shifting winds.
In his address Wednesday, the pope also expressed sadness for 176 people killed in a plane crash in Iran. The Ukrainian Boeing 737 jetliner crashed after leaving the airport in Tehran. Iranian officials have said a technical failure is a likely cause.
Pope Francis "commends the souls of the deceased to the merciful love of the Almighty," the pontiff's message said.