Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged foreign tourists not to be deterred by deadly wildfires that have razed large swathes of the country and sent smoke as far as Latin America, even as authorities warned of more blazes.
Morrison made the plea for international visitor support on Wednesday as he visited Kangaroo Island, a usually wildlife-rich tourist drawcard off Australia’s south coast that has been hit twice in recent weeks by fierce fires.
“Australia is open, Australia is still a wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays,” Morrison told reporters after meeting local tourism operators and farmers.
“Even here on Kangaroo Island, where a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two-thirds of it is open and ready for business,” he said. “It’s important to keep the local economies vibrant at these times.”
Morrison announced a relief package of 11 million Australian dollars ($7.56m) during his visit as costs of the fires mount daily for residents and businesses across the country.
Shortly after Morrison spoke, officials confirmed another firefighter had died in a vehicle crash last Friday while on duty, bringing the national death toll to 26.
While the economic and financial costs of the fires have yet to be fully assessed, Moody’s Analytics said they could easily surpass those of the deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares (1.11 million acres) of land, costing an estimated 4.4 billion Australian dollars ($3bn).
On Monday, Morrison pledged 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.35bn) for a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
Even as Morrison called on foreign tourists, authorities in the state of Victoria urged people in fire-risk areas to consider evacuating on Thursday, before a temperature spike on Friday that is expected to bring renewed danger.
The three largest cities in Australia’s southeast – Sydney, Melbourne and the capital Canberra – were all blanketed in thick smoke, putting them among the most polluted cities in the world.
“These fires remain dangerous, they remain dynamic, remain volatile, and the conditions we are going to see can give significant life to these fires,” Victoria Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.
Thousands of people have already been left homeless by the fires that have scorched through more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land – an area the size of South Korea. In rural areas, many towns were without power and telecommunications and some were running low on drinking water supplies, while smoke has blanketed cities including Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
Ecologists at the University of Sydney on Wednesday doubled their estimate of the number of animals killed or injured in the fires to one billion.
The bushfire crisis follows a three-year drought that experts have linked to climate change and that has left much of the country’s bushland tinder-dry and vulnerable to fires.
The fires have already emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring programme said.
Smoke from wildfires has drifted across the Pacific Ocean, affecting cities in Latin America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said.
There are 128 fires ablaze across the state of New South Wales, with about 50 uncontained. All the fires were at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating. The state of Victoria had 40 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts.
As many as 67 firefighters from the United States and Canada arrived in Australia on Wednesday, joining 40 of their compatriots already on the ground. Australian authorities have requested another 140 personnel, who are expected to arrive in the next two weeks.
More than 100 Australian military personnel are being deployed to help with clean-up efforts across the state.
Community leaders asked people to donate money instead of food and clothing because small communities are being overwhelmed by goods that they do not need. Authorities warned people to check the bona fides of people collecting donations amid a growing number of online scams.
The United Kingdom’s Prince Charles joined the list of global figures to send a message of support, referring to the “appalling horror unfolding in Australia” in a video sent overnight.