SYDNEY (AFP, AP) - Volunteer firefighters in Australia will be offered government compensation after spending extended periods fighting bushfires raging across the country, authorities announced on Sunday (Dec 29).
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 scheme, which offers payments of up to Aus$300 (S$282) per day for a maximum of Aus$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," Prime Minister Scott 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 scheme would be rolled out across other Australian states and territories if local authorities requested that assistance.
The scheme - which applies only to self-employed volunteers and those working for small- and medium-sized businesses - is expected to cost about Aus$50 million in NSW, 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 bushfire crisis, which has killed 10 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched more than three million hectares.
The prime minister was forced to apologise for taking a family holiday to Hawaii as Australia battled the bushfires, a decision that sparked public outrage and prompted street protests.
Temperatures are set to soar again across large parts of south-eastern Australia, with elevated fire danger expected in the lead-up to New Year's Day.
An emergency warning was issued Sunday for Victoria's east as conditions worsen. Melbourne, the state's capital, was set to reach 43 deg C on Monday.
People were ordered to evacuate Victoria state's East Gippsland region amid concerns three large blazes sparked over a month ago could burn out of control.
Victoria's Emergency Management commissioner Andrew Crisp said the more than 30,000 people in the popular tourist region should "leave now", as fires could force the closure of the last major road still open.
"What we're saying now with the conditions that will be confronting us tomorrow... is if you're holidaying in that part of the state, it's time you left," Crisp said, while urging local residents to do the same.
A major music festival was also cancelled ahead of the forecast extreme weather conditions, with 9,000 people asked to leave the Falls Festival campsite in Lorne due to the risk of bushfires, smoke haze and severe winds.
Severe thunderstorms and damaging wind gusts are predicted for neighbouring South Australia state, where multiple fires are raging and the bushfire danger will be extreme in several areas on Monday.
Firefighters are also bracing for bushfire conditions to worsen during the week in NSW, where 95 blazes were burning on Sunday, including 48 uncontained.