SYDNEY/CANBERRA/MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Australian officials Monday used a respite from fierce wildfires that have killed 24 people across the country’s southeast to race to reopen blocked roads and evacuate people who have been trapped for days.
A second day of light rain and cool winds brought some relief from heat wave-fueled blazes that ripped through two states over the weekend, but officials warned the hazardous weather conditions are expected to return later in the week.
“No one can be complacent. We’ve got big fire danger coming our way towards the end of this week with hot weather,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters Monday afternoon.
Authorities redoubled their efforts the same day to provide supplies and repatriate thousands of people who have been trapped by fire lines in coastal towns for several days.
“What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people’s lives,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra as he announced funding of 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion) over two years to the newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency.Morrison has faced criticism for his belated response in pooling national resources to combat the fires. He has also signaled his conservative government will not toughen policies to combat climate change, which has been blamed for exacerbating a crippling drought that has helped create tinderbox conditions.
On Saturday he announced an unprecedented level of military support to boost firefighting and recovery efforts.
On Monday, Canberra again had the world’s worst air quality, conditions which as the weekend prompted the release of about 100,000 particulate-filter masks from the national stockpile.
Little improvement is expected in conditions that have already caused the cancellation of dozens of flights as well as postal services. On Monday, child care centers were closed and shops and museums shuttered. The Department of Home Affairs has closed its Canberra offices until at least Wednesday, with non-essential staff told to stay home.
The hazardous smoke on Monday reached Melbourne, the largest city in Victoria. Australian Navy personnel were deployed at the weekend to rescue hundreds of stranded vacationers in the state who had been forced to huddle on the beach at Mallacoota as a ferocious blaze bore down on the tourist town last week.
Key authorities in New South Wales and Victoria welcomed the weekend news of the deployment of as many as 3,000 army reservists, but voiced disappointment that they were not consulted ahead of the decision or briefed before Morrison detailed his response plans to the media.
A 50-second advert about the deployment by Morrison’s Liberal Party was widely criticized for appearing to opportunistically politicize the crisis. It’s another misstep by Morrison, who was lambasted for taking an unannounced pre-Christmas vacation to Hawaii amid the crisis, and was filmed turning his back on a pregnant woman appealing for more resources to tackle the blazes as he toured a bush fire-ravaged community.
The unfolding tragedy that has blackened almost 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) in New South Wales state alone, has prompted millions of dollars in donations and support from international celebrities, sports stars, and also the British royal family.
On Saturday, two people died in wildfires that destroyed more than one-third of South Australia state’s Kangaroo Island, devastating the national park and farmland, and severely damaging the luxury Southern Ocean Lodge resort.
Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney, recorded a record 48.9 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) Saturday, symbolic of the dangerous weather conditions that have fanned ferocious flames and sparked new blazes further south.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said conditions are not expected to worsen to those levels in the coming days, but there are fears two huge fires in the southern highlands could merge to become a “mega-blaze.”
Berejiklian said her state is in “uncharted territory” due to the length and severity of the fire season. An estimated 60 homes were destroyed in New South Wales at the weekend, meaning more than 1,400 houses have been lost since September.
“The weather activity we’re seeing, the extent and spread of the fires, the speed at which they’re going, the way in which they’re attacking communities who’ve never ever seen fire before, is unprecedented,” Berejiklian said Sunday.
Meanwhile, a global appeal to help Australian firefighters tackling catastrophic fires raised more than AU$25 million ($17 million) on Monday.
Comedian Celeste Barber used her international social media fame to launch a Facebook fundraiser for firefighters that had surpassed its AU$25 million target in just three days with donations from all over the globe.
American pop star Pink said she will donate $500,000 to the firefighters, a donation matched by Australian actress Nicole Kidman.
World No. 1 tennis player Ashleigh Barty pledged to hand over all her winnings from this week’s Brisbane International tournament — potentially $250,000 — to the Red Cross.