SYDNEY – Volunteer firefighters in Australia will be offered government compensation after spending extended periods fighting bush fires raging across the country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Sunday.
Rural Fire Service volunteers who have spent at least 10 days battling blazes in worst-hit New South Wales (NSW) state are immediately eligible for the program, which offers payments of up to 300 Australian dollars ($209) per day for a maximum of AU$6,000 per person.
“While I know RFS volunteers don’t seek payment for their service, I don’t want to see volunteers or their families unable to pay bills, or struggle financially as a result of the selfless contribution they are making,” Morrison said.
“This is not about paying volunteers. It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss.”
Morrison said the compensation program would be rolled out across other Australian states and territories if local authorities requested that assistance.
“They run their own shows; they know what their challenges are,” he said of the state governments.
The program — which applies only to self-employed volunteers and those working for small- and medium-size businesses — is expected to cost about AU$50 million in NSW alone, which boasts the world’s largest volunteer fire service at 70,000 people.
Volunteers who are also government employees were last week granted additional paid leave to help fight the blazes.
Morrison has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks over his response to the bush-fire crisis, which has killed 10 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched more than 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres).
The prime minister was forced to apologize for taking a family holiday to Hawaii as Australia battled the bush fires, a decision that sparked public outrage and prompted street protests.
Firefighters are now bracing for bush-fire conditions to worsen on Tuesday, including in NSW where 85 blazes are still burning including 36 uncontained.
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters had put in “remarkable” work to contain fires over the cooler Christmas period.
“There was still thousands of firefighters and personnel out each day, hardening up the lines, and shoring up as much protection as they can,” he said.
Temperatures are expected to soar in the coming days, with increasing fire danger predicted for New Year’s Eve.
A major music festival in Victoria state was canceled Sunday ahead of the forecast extreme weather conditions, with 9,000 people asked to leave the campsite due to risk of bush fires, smoke haze and severe winds.
A petition to cancel Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks and use the money to fight the bush fires ringing the city has topped 260,000 signatures, but officials say the show will go on.
Sydney is spending AU$6.5 million ($4.5 million) on this year’s fireworks display — funds that the Change.org petition argues would be better spent on supporting volunteer firefighters and farmers suffering through a brutal drought.
The massive fireworks display on Sydney Harbour “may traumatise some people,” the petition says, “as there is enough smoke in the air.”
A City of Sydney spokesman said while they “appreciate the concerns” of the people opposed to holding the fireworks during a crisis, canceling the celebration would have “little practical benefit for affected communities.”
“We began preparations and planning for the NYE celebrations 15 months ago. This means most of the budget, largely used for crowd safety and cleaning measures, has already been spent,” the spokesman said in a statement.
“Canceling the event would seriously hurt Sydney businesses. It would also ruin plans for tens of thousands of people from across the country and overseas who have booked flights, hotels and restaurants for New Year’s Eve.”
Sydney’s council added that it has donated AU$620,000 to support the bush-fire and drought response and would also promote a Red Cross disaster relief fund during the televised fireworks broadcast.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said he was prepared to cancel the fireworks at the last minute if he deemed it to be too risky.
The display, watched by an estimated 1 billion people globally, is worth AU$130 million annually to the NSW economy.