Australia commits billions of dollars to wildfire recovery

A man walking a dog as smoke haze from bushfires hugs the sky in Narooma, New South Wales, on Jan 5, 2020.
A man walking a dog as smoke haze from bushfires hugs the sky in Narooma, New South Wales, on Jan 5, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AP, REUTERS) - Australia’s government on Monday (Jan 6) said it was willing to pay “whatever it takes” to help communities recover from deadly wildfires that have ravaged the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was committing an extra 2 billion Australian dollars (S$1.9 billion) toward the recovery effort in addition to the tens of millions of dollars that has already been committed.

“The fires are still burning. And they’ll be burning for months to come,” Mr Morrison said. “And so that’s why I outlined today that this is an initial, an additional, investment of $2 billion. If more is needed and the cost is higher, then more will be provided.”

His announcement came as authorities said two more people were missing in remote parts of New South Wales. 

Rain and cooler temperatures were bringing some measure of relief to those communities battling wildfires.

But the rain was also making it challenging for fire crews to complete strategic burns as they tried to prepare for higher temperatures that have been forecast for later in the week.

Police on Monday confirmed the death of a 71-year-old man on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) state who was reported missing on Dec 31, bringing the national toll to 25. 

More than 8 million hectares of land have so far been destroyed in the current fire season, nearly the size of Austria. About 2,000 homes were also destroyed. 

More than 135 bushfires were still burning across Australia's most populous state, including almost 70 that were uncontained. The Rural Fire Service is warning the rain will not put out the largest and most dangerous blazes before conditions deteriorate again this week.

For a second day, Australia's capital, Canberra, had the worst air quality of any major city in the world on Monday morning. The Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for coordinating the country's response to disasters, told all non-critical staff to stay home because of the abysmal air quality.

"With the more benign weather conditions, it presents some wonderful relief for everybody, the firefighters, the emergency services personnel, but also the communities affected by these fires," Mr Shane Fitzsimmons, the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told reporters.

"But it also presents some real challenges when it comes to implementing tactical and strategic back-burns and other techniques to try and bring these fires under control."

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there was no room for complacency. 

Mr Morrison has come under criticism for his response to the fires. He said this week that there has been plenty of blame thrown around, but that the commentary has not been productive.

Mr Morrison announced on Saturday he would dispatch 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists to help battle the fires. He also committed A$20 million (S$18.8 million) to lease firefighting aircraft from overseas.

But the moves did little to tamp down the criticism that he had been slow to act, even as he has downplayed the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.

 
 
 
 

Australians know to expect summer wildfires. But the blazes arrived early this year, fed by drought and the country's hottest and driest year on record.

Scientists say there is no doubt man-made global warming has played a major role in feeding the fires, along with factors such as very dry brush and trees and strong winds.

Mr Morrison, chided for past remarks minimising the need to address climate change, has deflected criticism while trying to change his tone.

He has faced widespread criticism for taking a family vacation in Hawaii at the start of the wildfire crisis, as well as for his sometimes distracted approach as the disaster has escalated and his slowness in deploying resources.

His handling of the deployment of reservists also came in for criticism. Mr Fitzsimmons, who is leading the fight in New South Wales, said he learnt of the deployment through media reports.

"It is fair to say it was disappointing and some surprise to hear about these things through public announcements in the middle of what was one of our worst days this season, with the second-highest number of concurrent emergency warning fires ever in the history of New South Wales," he said.

Mr Morrison was also forced to defend a video posted on social media on Saturday that promoted the deployment of reservists and the government's response to the wildfires.