Two volunteer firefighters died while battling blazes around Sydney, authorities said on Friday, forcing Australia‘s Prime Minister Scott Morrison to cut short a holiday in Hawaii that had fuelled public anger at the government’s response to the crisis.
Australia has been fighting bushfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving eight people dead, more than 700 homes destroyed and nearly 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of bushland burned.
As fires ringed Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, the firefighters’ truck hit a tree and rolled over just to the south of the city, killing the driver and a front passenger, police said. Three other people were injured.
“There is no finer person available in my view than someone who is willing to put themselves on the line for the want of nothing in return, no remuneration, nothing other than to make a positive difference in their local community,” New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.
“There is a definition of hero and these two line up to it.”
Fitzsimmons named the dead firefighters as Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, and Geoffrey Keaton, 32. Both men were fathers to 19-month old children, Fitzsimmons said.
Earlier, three other firefighters were engulfed by flames as fierce winds fuelled bushfires across the same state. Two men were airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces, arms and legs, while a female colleague was taken by ambulance to hospital.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the injured firefighters are now in stable condition.
Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of this season’s fires – during the southern hemisphere spring – is unprecedented.
The crisis has fuelled widespread public anger, with protests around Australia. Morrison’s decision to go on holiday to Hawaii despite the crisis triggered a wave of anger and added to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.
Morrison’s office initially declined to comment on the reports. Eventually, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack confirmed he was acting leader.
Just hours after confirmation of the deaths of the firefighters, Morrison said he would be returning and issued an apology.
“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.
Based on preliminary analysis, yesterday, Australia recorded its hottest day on record. The nationally-averaged maximum daytime temp was 41.9 °C exceeding the record set on Tuesday, 40.9 ºC. You can view the top ten highest daily maximum temps here: https://t.co/Cdqm9vD1cI pic.twitter.com/DRDK9LAvrg
— Bureau of Meteorology, Australia (@BOM_au) December 19, 2019
Temperatures are expected to soar again as Morrison arrives back in Australia.
On Thursday, Australia recorded its hottest day on record as national temperatures topped more than 42 degree Celsius (107.6 degree Fahrenheit).
While it was cooler on Friday, temperatures are expected to rise beyond 40 degrees Celsius at the weekend, adding to concerns of a fresh wave of fires across NSW.
The fires have resulted in days of heavy pollution in Sydney, a city usually known for its sparkling harbour and blue skies.
Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels.