Storms bring great relief to fire-hit areas in Australia

But worst is not over, firefighters say; slump in tourism expected to cost economy $4b this year

MELBOURNE • Intense thunderstorms with heavy rain dampened bush fires on Australia's east coast yesterday, to the relief of exhausted firefighters, and farmers battling years of drought.

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, three of the states most affected by a prolonged drought and bush fires, welcomed the drenching rain this week. The fire services say the downpours will not extinguish all the blazes but will aid containment.

"Our fingers are crossed that this continues over the coming days," New South Wales fire services said on Twitter yesterday.

Severe storms are forecast to continue in many fire-stricken regions of New South Wales and Queensland, including areas that have not seen heavy rainfall for years, the Bureau of Meteorology in New South Wales said, easing slightly the state's three-year drought.

"The recent rain has just been absolutely fantastic," said cattle farmer Sam White in northern New South Wales. "It's producing significant amounts of run-off, which is what we need, and it's getting into our dams."

While the wet weather brings relief to firefighters and drought-hit farmers, it also comes with dangers, such as flash flooding and falling trees, many already structurally destroyed by the intense bush fires. One wildlife park had to rescue koalas from flood waters and beat back crocodiles with brooms.

The heavy downpours have helped to clean smoky air in Australia, but Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne yesterday remained in the world's top 100 polluted cities, according to AirVisual's pollution ranking for major global cities.

Melbourne, sheathed by smoke earlier in the week that disrupted the Australian Open qualifying matches and other sporting competitions, is forecast again to be blanketed by unhealthy air over the weekend when the Grand Slam event begins.

Australia will lose billions of dollars in tourism revenue as international visitors cancel trips in droves due to the bush fires, an industry body forecast yesterday.

An Australian Reptile Park worker carrying koalas to safety during a flash flood yesterday. Heavy rain fell on bush fires in eastern Australia for a second straight day, offering relief from a months-long crisis. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The number of travellers booking visits to Australia has fallen 10 to 20 per cent since the fires began and the slump will cost the economy an estimated A$4.5 billion (S$4 billion) this year, said the Australian Tourism Export Council.

It added that the disaster had hit travel from Britain, Europe and the United States the hardest, coinciding with the December-February period which traditionally sees 50 per cent of the annual tourist bookings from those markets.

The council also said the industry and government need to urgently get the message out that many key tourism destinations are largely unaffected by the fires.

Australia's Conservative government, which has come under intense criticism for its response to the fires and to global warming which scientists say has been a major contributing factor to the crisis, has announced a A$2 billion "bush fire recovery plan".


Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday that this would include a significant boost for the tourism industry, with details to be unveiled next week.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2020, with the headline 'Storms bring great relief to fire-hit areas in Australia'. Subscribe