Australian firefighters get brief reprieve as death toll rises

A resident uses a garden hose to wet down the house as high winds push smoke and ash from the Currowan Fire towards Nowra, New South Wales, Australia January 4, 2020. — Reuters pic
A resident uses a garden hose to wet down the house as high winds push smoke and ash from the Currowan Fire towards Nowra, New South Wales, Australia January 4, 2020. — Reuters pic

SYDNEY, Jan 5 — Fire threats eased in parts of southeastern Australia today after a horror day of blazes that killed one man and injured four firefighters, but authorities warned several fires were still burning at emergency levels and hot weather was set to return.

As the immediate danger passed and cooler weather tempered the intensity of many fires, authorities began assessing the damage from yesterday’s wildfires that swept across eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales (NSW) states.

Tens of thousands of homes were without power today as a large-scale military and police effort continued to provide supplies and evacuate people who have been trapped for days by the fires in coastal towns.

Initial estimates put damaged or destroyed properties in the hundreds, but authorities said mass evacuations by residents of at-risk areas appear to have prevented major loss of life.

“It was an awful day yesterday. It was a very difficult day yesterday,” NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said today.

A southerly wind late yesterday helped bring temperatures down from highs above 40 C (104F) and light rain was forecast in some coastal areas in coming days, but officials said that would not be enough to bring the almost 200 fires still burning under control.

Fitzsimmons said the next major flashpoint would come later in the week, but it was too early to gauge the likely severity of the threat.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the immediate focus was on helping people who had lost their homes as well containing the fires still burning.

“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,” Berejiklian said.

Australia has been battling blazes across much of its east coast for months, with experts saying climate change has been a major factor in a three-year drought that has left much of the country’s bushland tinder-dry and susceptible to fires.

Following are highlights of what is happening across Australia:

* The death of a 47-year old man who was defending a friend’s rural property in NSW took the national toll this season to 24.

* 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.

* Another fire near the southern coastal town of Eden was at Emergency level, and the ABC reported police have warned people should leave for evacuation centres.

* Five fires in Victoria had Evacuate Now or Emergency Level warnings.

* NSW Premier Berejiklian says there is no one unaccounted for in NSW; Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews says six people remain unaccounted for in Victoria.

* The federal government has announced an unprecedented call up of army reservists to support firefighters as well other resources including a third navy ship equipped for disaster and humanitarian relief.

* RFS Commissioner Fitzsimmons criticised the government for not informing him of its policy proposal, saying he found out about it from the media and it created confusion on one of the busiest days ever for fighting fires. “I was disappointed and I was frustrated in the middle of what was one of our worst days ever on record with massive dislocation and movement of people and a focus on really difficult weather,” Fitzsimmons said.

* Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced criticism for a video he posted on social media outlining how the government is tackling the fires. Morrison has been under sustained attack handling of the crisis after he jetted out for a family holiday in Hawaii. He apologised and returned early but was heckled and snubbed when he toured fire-hit regions in recent days.

* More than 5.25 million hectares (13 million acres) of land has been burnt this fire season. — Reuters

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