Cyclone Ilsa approaches Western Australia, warnings it could be area's strongest storm in a decade

A major cyclone is intensifying off the coast of Western Australia with warnings that it could be the most powerful storm to make landfall in the area in more than a decade with winds strong enough to lift camper vans.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said Cyclone Ilsa is expected to make landfall late Thursday night or early Friday, somewhere between the towns of Broome and Port Hedland, a major port hub for the export of iron ore.

The storm is expected to generate wind gusts of more than 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour) by Thursday evening, equivalent to a Category 4 or 5 hurricane in the US.

"Winds of this strength not only have the ability to bring down trees and power lines but lift items from your yard and home -- caravans, trampolines," said BOM's senior meteorologist Miriam Bradbury.

Local authorities warned residents to tie down anything that could become airborne in strong winds.

Tourists staying along the portion of coast between Broome and Port Hedland have been told to move from the projected path of the storm. Others have rushed to supermarkets to stock up on food and other supplies.

Broome and Port Hedland are relatively small towns with a combined population of around 30,000 people. Many people employed by the iron ore mines live and work in Port Hedland.

On Tuesday, the Pilbara Port Authority said it was clearing boats from all berths in the inner harbor of the Port Hedland port, and urged recreational boat owners to secure their vessels.

Cyclones are common on the west coast of Australia, with the Bureau of Meteorology logging seven of them last year.

Australia uses a five-tier system to gauge the intensity of tropical cyclones, with Category 4 representing those reaching a mean wind speed of between 160 and 199 kph -- with typical wind gusts of over 225 kph (140 mph).

Darren Klemm, Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner of Western Australia, said it had been 10 years since a cyclone of that size had hit the WA coast.

"There'll be many people up there who haven't experienced a Cat 4 cyclone before," he said.

The northern coast of Western Australia has been hit by 13 storms equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane since 1960, but this would be the first since Tropical Cyclone Laurence in 2009, which hit in a very similar location with winds of 150 mph (240 kph) at landfall.

The strongest storm ever to hit any part of Australia was Tropical Cyclone Monica, which arrived in 2006 with sustained winds around 180 mph (290 kph), as it swept across the eastern and northern part of Australia.

Australia has experienced a series of natural disasters in recent years. Last year, flooding affected parts of the states of New South Wales and Queensland.