Cooler weather brought some respite to firefighters battling to contain blazes on several significant fronts across southeast Australia on Sunday, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised for taking a family holiday to Hawaii as the fires raged and hazardous smog shrouded the country’s biggest city.
Morrison visited the Rural Fire Service (RFS) headquarters in Sydney, a day after cutting short a holiday that triggered widespread public criticism.
“If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions,” Morrison told reporters after the fire service visit.
“I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it.”
He added: “But as prime minister, you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism.”
Morrison said he would cut short his holiday, after the deaths of two firefighters on Thursday night.
The intensity of fires eased overnight in New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and South Australian states, where fires had been burning out of control on Friday and Saturday driven by a combination of extreme heat and strong winds.
Some fires were so intense that they generated their own thunderstorms.
“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 about 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of Sydney would be a significant focus for fire crews.
“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, the Fire Service said on Twitter.
“Firefighters will take advantage of more favourable conditions today and over coming days to construct and consolidate containment lines,” it said.
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.
— Jessica Washington (@JesWashington) December 21, 2019
Conditions are expected to remain favourable over coming days, but there is still no forecast for much-needed rain and temperatures are expected to edge higher again.
To those who have accused his government of not doing enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in this year’s fires, Morrison said there were also “many other factors” responsible.
“There is no argument … about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world,” he said. “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.”
Hot and dry conditions created an early start to Australia’s fire season, with 10 people dead and blazes destroying more than 800 homes and at least three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of bushland.
In the state of South Australia, two people died in fires over the past two days, and dozens of firefighters and residents have been treated for injuries and smoke inhalation.
Smoke from bushfires prompted match officials to abandon Saturday’s Big Bash League cricket match in Canberra over what they called “dangerous and unreasonable playing conditions”.