Australian PM Scott Morrison defends his response as weather brings respite from fires

Nearly 150 fires were still burning in New South Wales, and dozens more were burning in Victoria.
Nearly 150 fires were still burning in New South Wales, and dozens more were burning in Victoria.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SYDNEY (AP, REUTERS) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his leadership and his government’s record on climate change on Sunday (Jan 5) as milder temperatures brought hope of a respite from wildfires that have ravaged three states, claiming 24 lives and destroying almost 2,000 homes.

Cooler temperatures and lighter winds on Sunday brought some relief to threatened communities, a day after thousands were forced to flee as flames reached the suburban fringes of Sydney.  

Mr Morrison said Singapore and Papua New Guinea had made offers of military support; New Zealand was sending an additional three Air Force helicopters and crews, two Army Combat Engineer Sections and a command element to support Australian Defence efforts.

On Saturday, Mr Morrison announced that, for the first time in Australian history, 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists would be thrown into the battle against the fires. He also committed US$14 million (S$19 million) to leasing firefighting aircraft from overseas.

But those decisions attracted complaints that he had taken too long to act as fires have burned through millions of hectares in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, an area twice the size of Maryland.

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

He was heckled last week when he visited a township in New South Wales in which houses had been destroyed and which was home to one of three volunteer firefighters who died in the crisis so far.

Mr Morrison told a news conference on Sunday it was not the time for blame. “There has been a lot of blame being thrown around,” he said. “And now is the time to focus on the response that is being made... Blame doesn’t help anybody at this time and over-analysis of these things is not a productive exercise.”

He has been chided for past remarks that appear to minimise the link between climate change and Australia’s escalating threats of drought and wildfires. “There is no dispute in this country about the issue of climate change globally and its effect on global weather patterns and that includes how it impacts in Australia,” he said.

“I have to correct the record here. I have seen a number of people suggest that somehow the government does not make this connection. The government has always made this connection and that has never been in dispute.” 

Thousands of firefighters fought to contain the blazes but many continued to burn out of control, threatening to wipe out rural townships and causing almost incalculable damage to property and wildlife.

In Canberra, officials asked for 100,000 extra breathing masks from the national stockpile as the country’s capital recorded the worst air quality in the world on Sunday, according to the IQAir AirVisual global index. The masks are expected to arrive on Monday. 

As dawn broke over a blackened landscape on Sunday, a picture emerged of disaster of unprecedented scale

The Rural Fire Service said 150 fires were active in the state, 64 of them uncontrolled.

“It’s not something we have experienced before,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

The latest fatality occurred at Batlow in New South Wales, where a 47-year-old man died on Saturday night while defending the home of a friend from encroaching fires. New South Wales police said the man was found unconscious in a vehicle and could not be revived.

Earlier on Saturday, a father and son who were battling flames for two days died on a highway on Kangaroo Island, off South Australia state. The authorities identified them as Mr Dick Lang, a 78-year-old acclaimed bush pilot and outback safari operator, and his 43-year-old son, Clayton. Their family said their losses left them “heartbroken and reeling from this double tragedy”. The elder Mr Lang, known as “Desert Dick”, had led tours for travellers throughout Australia and other countries.

The deadly wildfires, which have been raging since September, have already burned about five million hectares of land. That’s more than any one year in the US since Harry Truman was president.

The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has also been catastrophic for the country’s wildlife, likely killing nearly 500 million birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone, Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickman told the Sydney Morning Herald. 


Firefighters keep a watchful eye on a fire threatening homes along the Princes Highway in Australia on Jan 5, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Frogs, bats and insects are excluded from his estimate, making the toll on animals much greater.

Mr Morrison’s handling of the deployment of reservists also came in for criticism on Sunday. 

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane 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, which promoted the deployment of reservists and the government’s response to the wildfires.

The non-partisan Australia Defence Association said the video breached rules around political advertising.

“Party-political advertising milking ADF (Australian Defence Force) support to civil agencies fighting bushfires is a clear breach of the non-partisanship convention applying to both the ADF and ministers/MPs,” the association said.

In a tweet, Mr Morrison said: “The video message simply communicates the government’s policy decisions and the actions the government is undertaking to the public.” 

REPRIEVE OF SORTS

A southerly change that came through on Saturday night brought cooler temperatures, after they topped 40 deg C in many areas on Saturday, and there was even the prospect of some light rain in coastal areas in coming days.

"It will be a reprieve of sorts, it will be a psychological reprieve for many, but it's certainly not going to be the sort of relief we're looking for in terms of getting under control all these fires or putting these fires out," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

The weather change brought with it strong winds that whipped up fires and kept them burning overnight. In the Southern Highlands region south of Sydney, a new fire was burning out of control after the winds helped drive an existing blaze to jump the Shoalhaven and Kangaroo rivers.

NSW Premier Berejiklian said the focus would be on recovery and helping those who were displaced and had lost their homes, as well as containing fires still burning. She said these were unprecedented circumstances.

"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 are attacking communities who have never ever seen fire before is unprecedented. We have to accept that," she said.

As smoke cleared, about 350 people were due to be airlifted out of the Victorian town of Mallacoota on Sunday, where around 1,000 people were evacuated by sea on Friday. That would leave about 400 people who had chosen to stay in the community, The Age newspaper reported.

Actors, popstars and Britain’s royal family stepped in to offer support for victims of the fires, helping to raise millions for firefighting services and wildlife shelters.