SYDNEY (AP, REUTERS) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday (Dec 22) apologised for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as deadly bush fires raged across several states, destroying homes and claiming the lives of two volunteer firefighters.
Mr Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and adult children amid public anger at his absence from Australia at a time of national crisis. He arrived home on Saturday, and on Sunday morning, spoke to reporters while visiting the headquarters of the Rural Fire Service in Sydney.
"If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions," he said. "I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids, you try and keep it."
He added: "But as prime minister, you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism."
Mr Morrison said this was not a time for political point-scoring but a "time to be kind to each other". He said he is not a trained firefighter, "but I'm comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here just simply so I can be here, alongside them, as they are going through this terrible time".
He also answered critics who say his government has not done enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in the spate of fires burning across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
He said there were also "many other factors" responsible for the unprecedented number of fires during a record-breaking heatwave.
"There is no argument... about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world," he said. "But I'm sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event – it's not a credible suggestion to make that link."
Earlier this month, Australia drew criticism at a UN climate summit in Madrid for its climate-change policy of using old carbon credits to count towards future emissions targets.
Australia is one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita because of its reliance on coal-fired power plants. It has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, but critics accuse Mr Morrison of paying lip service to that commitment.
Mr Morrison recommitted to those policies, which he took to a general election in May, on Sunday.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fizsimmons described Saturday as an "awful day" for firefighters as strong southerly winds fanned more than 100 fires in New South Wales alone.
The leader of the state, Gladys Berejiklian, said “catastrophic” fire conditions on Saturday in parts of the prime minister’s home state had destroyed communities. “We’ve got the devastating news there’s not much left in the town of Balmoral,” Berejiklian told journalists.
Balmoral is about 120km south west of Sydney with a population of some 400. No fatalities were reported.
Most of the fires were still burning on Sunday, though none were rated as emergencies.
A fire-generated thunderstorm formed over one blaze at Shoalhaven on Saturday, escalating the fire danger.
Dozens of homes have been lost since last Thursday in massive wildfires, including the Gospers Mountain blaze that covered more than 460,000ha.
Fitzsimmons said Saturday’s fire conditions may have added another hundred buildings to the tally of those already destroyed during this year’s fire season.
Conditions are expected to remain favourable for firefighters over the coming days allowing them to work to contain fires encroaching on communities, particularly in the Blue Mountains region to the west of Sydney.
"Today is thankfully expected to be much cooler for large sections of NSW, which will be a welcome reprieve. However, many communities away from the coast will still experience significant heat," the Bureau of Meteorology said in a tweet.
Thirty firefighters from Canada and nine from the United States were among fresh crews joining the battle against the fires on Sunday.
But authorities stated that large fires would continue to burn across New South Wales without significant rainfall, which is not forecast for many weeks.
“That’s still a way to go,” Fitzsimmons said on Sunday. “We’re still talking four to six weeks at best before we start to see a meaningful reprieve in the weather.”
Near the town of Lithgow, about 140km west of Sydney, one man who had been unaccounted for early on Sunday was later found safe.
Lithgow is also home to a prison facility, which the state’s Department of Justice said had significant capability to fight fires and was not evacuated. Staff and inmates were given masks on Saturday to protect against heavy smoke in the area.