Fire conditions eased on some of the major fronts burning across Australia on Sunday after a cool weather change, with firefighters trying to contain blazes before hotter conditions are expected to return at the end of the week.
On a visit to the Rural Fire Service (RFS) headquarters in Sydney, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologized for upsetting people by going on holiday in Hawaii while much of Australia burned in the latest bushfire emergency.
The Liberal leader returned to Sydney on Saturday night and on Sunday morning confirmed he’d been in Hawaii with his family on a trip that was planned six weeks ago.
“If we had our time over again and with the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“(But) I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your children you try and keep it.
“But as prime minister, you have other responsibilities, and I accept that and I accept the criticism.”
Morrison said to the people he’d upset by being away during the latest bushfire emergency: “I apologise for that.”
He thanked firefighters, communities, and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for their efforts in fighting the fires and protecting properties.
Not only do we express our deepest sympathy to the families of @NSWRFS heroes Geoff and Andrew, but our thoughts are also with their extended family- the Horsley Park RFS brigade. It was an honour to spend time with you today. pic.twitter.com/sSU7riawU7
— Gladys Berejiklian (@GladysB) December 20, 2019
The prime minister said he’d always acknowledged the connection between climate change and bushfires but there were also “many other issues” at play, including drought, fuel-load management, lightning strikes, and arson.
“There is no argument … about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world,” he said at the RFS headquarters in Sydney Olympic Park.
“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.”
Morrison also stressed that now is not the time for point-scoring but rather “a time to be kind to each other.”
Seems to me the same bayonet brigade furious Morrison was on a holiday and not here ‘in charge’ of fire fighting are now complaining he’s back and fronted up at @NSWRFS
— Peter Ford (@mrpford) December 21, 2019
“This is not a time for division, argument, partisanship or point-scoring. It’s a time to support people who have a very important job to do.”
Morrison again extended sympathy to the families of NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer who were killed on Thursday night fighting fires.
NSW RFS has a dedicated account for families of firefighters Geoffrey Keaton & Andrew O’Dwyer, who were killed on duty at the Green Wattle Creek fire. Funds will be equally distributed between the spouses, & tax receipts will be provided. https://t.co/es0nDKFTCs #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/NcwzJQxYgS
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 21, 2019
It was their deaths that prompted Morrison on Friday morning to say he planned to rush home.
“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” Morrison said in a statement on Friday.
“I have been receiving regular updates on the bushfires disaster as well as the status of the search for and treatment of the victims of the White Island tragedy.”
Morrison’s wife and daughters will remain in Hawaii.
He was originally scheduled to return to prime ministerial duties on Monday.
Conditions Ease on Sunday
The intensity of fires eased overnight in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia states, where fires had been burning out of control on Friday and Saturday as a combination of extreme heat and strong winds had created “catastrophic” conditions in some areas.
“We have still got an enormous amount of fire burning in the landscape,” NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, adding that the spreading fires in the Blue Mountains area around 100 km (62 miles) west of Sydney would be a significant focus for fire crews.
This incredible video was taken by firefighters in the early hours of this morning on Hat Head Rd at #Blackheath, when the fire burnt out of the valley threatening homes. #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/r85ccBIEeF
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 21, 2019
“We’ve seen widespread damage and destruction being reported across a number of these fire grounds, and we’ve got impact assessment teams already deployed into the field this morning.”
More than 105 fires were still burning across NSW on Sunday, with 59 considered uncontained, although none were burning at the emergency level that a number were classed at during Saturday’s heat and wind.
One man is still unaccounted for after staying on Saturday to protect his property near Lithgow, a town west of Sydney, as fires approached. Dozens of properties were reported damaged or destroyed.
“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.
Conditions are expected to remain favorable over coming days and firefighters will work to contain some of the firefronts near communities, particularly in the Blue Mountains region to the west of Sydney.
By Julian Drape