PERTH (Reuters) - Tropical Cyclone Lua hurtled toward Australia's northwest coast on Thursday, strengthening into a Category 2 cyclone by early morning and prompting the shutdown of several oil fields and Port Hedland, one of the world's largest iron ore export ports.
Heavy rainfall is forecast in sparsely populated coastal areas on Thursday and Friday, with the cyclone expected to intensify and make landfall on Saturday morning, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
The storm is expected to strengthen to Category 3 by Thursday evening and continue southeast towards the coast, home to Australia's largest iron ore port as well as several oil and gas facilities, and to intensify to a Category 4 cyclone on Saturday morning, the weather bureau said.
Category 4 is the second most severe on the Australian scale and means sustained winds are expected with speeds of 160-200 km per hour (100-124 miles per hour) and gusts up to 279 kph (173 mph).
Lua is bearing down on Australia's iron ore-rich Pilbara mining region and Port Hedland, which exports about 250 million tonnes of iron ore per year and is preparing to shut down on Friday morning, a port official said.
"We'll close it when the last ship departs and that will be tomorrow," harbor master John Finch said.
Miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, which have major iron ore operations in the area, said they are monitoring the storm.
Chevron said on Thursday it was evacuating non-essential personnel from Barrow Island, located 70 km (44 miles) off northwestern Australia, where the company operates oil production facilities and is constructing the Gorgon liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. The company said it is also evacuating personnel related to its Wheatstone LNG project near the coastal town of Onslow.
Cyclones are a regular occurrence during Australian summers and can often force offshore oil and gas platforms to suspend operations and mobile marine units to seek safe harbors until the storm passes.
On Wednesday, Woodside Petroleum and Apache Corp shut several of their oil fields off Australia's northwest coast as Lua approached.
Australia's Woodside halted production at six oil fields, including its Vincent and Enfield oil fields and the Cossack, Wanaea, Lambert and Hermes oil fields on the North West Shelf, the company said.
Apache Corp shut oil production at its Stag field and was evacuating non-essential personnel from its Varanus Island natural gas processing facility.
Woodside's Vincent produces an average of around 24,250 barrels per day (bpd) and Enfield 11,770 bpd, while the company's North West Shelf fields produce around 5,500 bpd, according to the latest production report. Apache's Stag oil field produces about 8,800 barrels of oil per day.
The cyclone season off Australia's northwest typically runs from November to April.
(Reporting by Rebekah Kebede in Perth, Nallur Sethuraman in Bangalore, and Jim Regan in Sydney; Editing by Michael Watson)