Rain brings relief but Australian fires not over yet

Two more people were missing in remote parts of the Australian state of New South Wales as rain and cooler temperatures brought some welcome relief to Australian communities battling wildfires on Monday. But the rain also brought challenges for fire crews as they attempted to complete strategic burns in preparation for higher temperatures forecast for later in the week. Australia’s wildfires, which began in September, have so far scorched an area roughly the size of Croatia, killing at least 24 people and destroying some 2,000 homes.

More than 135 fires were still burning across New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, including almost 70 that were uncontained. The Rural Fire Service warned the rain would not put out the largest and most dangerous blazes before conditions deteriorated again this week.

A truck sits burnt out before a destroyed house at Conjola Park, NSW (Rick Rycroft/AP)

Australia’s capital, Canberra, had the worst air quality of any major city in the world on Monday morning owing to smoke from nearby wildfires. The Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for coordinating the country’s response to disasters, told all non-critical staff to stay home because of the abysmal air quality.

“With the more benign weather conditions it presents some wonderful relief for everybody, the firefighters, the emergency services personnel, but also the communities affected by these fires,” Shane Fitzsimmons, the Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, told reporters. “But it also presents some real challenges when it comes to implementing tactical and strategic back-burns and other techniques to try and bring these fires under control.” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there was no room for complacency.

“Unfortunately, overnight, it’s become apparent that we have two people unaccounted for in New South Wales,” she said at a news conference. The fires have evolved as something of a public relations disaster for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under intense criticism for his response. Mr Morrison announced on Saturday he would dispatch 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists to help battle the fires.

He also committed £20 million AUD (GBP10.6 million) to lease firefighting aircraft from overseas. But the moves did little to tamp down criticism that he was slow to act, even as he has downplayed the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.

Rain brings relief but Australian fires not over yetAustralian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is confronted by angry residents as he visited a wildfire-ravaged Cobargo, NSW, at the height of the fires (ABC TV/AP)

Australians know to expect summer wildfires. But the blazes arrived early this year, fed by drought and the country’s hottest and driest year on record.

Scientists say there’s no doubt man-made global warming has played a major role in feeding the fires, along with factors like very dry vegetation and trees, and strong winds. Mr Morrison, chided for past remarks minimising the need to address climate change, has deflected criticism while trying to change his tone. He has faced widespread criticism for taking a family vacation in Hawaii at the start of the wildfire crisis, as well as for his sometimes distracted approach as the disaster has escalated and his slowness in deploying resources.

His handling of the deployment of reservists also came in for criticism. Commissioner Fitzsimmons, who is leading the fight in NSW, said he learned of the deployment through media reports. “It is fair to say it was disappointing and some surprise to hear about these things through public announcements in the middle of what was one of our worst days this season, with the second-highest number of concurrent emergency warning fires ever in the history of New South Wales,” he said.

Mr Morrison was also forced to defend a video posted on social media Saturday that promoted the deployment of reservists and the government’s response to the wildfires.

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