Australia announces compensation for volunteer firefighters

Volunteer crews have been on front line of some of the most ferocious bushfires to hit Australia in years.

    The people fighting Australia's bushfires, seen here in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, are largely volunteers who have to negotiate time off with their employers [Jill Gralow/Reuters]
    The people fighting Australia's bushfires, seen here in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, are largely volunteers who have to negotiate time off with their employers [Jill Gralow/Reuters]

    The Australian government has announced it would compensate volunteer firefighters in the state of New South Wales (NSW), as authorities brace for conditions to deteriorate again with more high temperatures forecast.

    Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday said volunteer firefighters will receive 300 Australian dollars ($209) a day, up to 6,000 Australian dollars ($4,190) in total, if called out to battle blazes for more than 10 days. 

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    "The early and prolonged nature of this fire season has made a call beyond what is typically made on our volunteer firefighters," Morrison said.

    The prime minister has been under pressure to tackle the fire crisis since taking a family holiday to Hawaii while parts of the country burned. He cut short the trip after two firefighters were killed.

    The opposition Labor party has been pressing the government to consider widespread compensation for the volunteers who usually have to negotiate time off directly with their employer.

    Morrison said the compensation was necessary so that the NSW fires commissioner was able to continue to call out the volunteer force.

    The programme is expected to cost 50 million Australian dollars ($34.9 million) but will be uncapped with the first 10 million Australian dollars ($6.9 million) being made available next month. Morrison said it would be offered to other states and territories requesting help.

    Fires have also ravaged parts of Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

    NSW, the country's most populous state, has endured the worst of the fires, which have killed nine people nationwide and razed more than 1,000 homes in the past few months.

    Temperatures to rise again

    High temperatures in the country's east are expected until the new year. Sydney's western suburbs were set to hit 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit) on Sunday before peaking at 44C (111F) on Tuesday.

    The fire danger in Sydney and northern NSW is currently at very high.

    New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said 85 fires were still burning across the state with almost half of them not contained.

    Australia fires
    Smoke rises from fires raging in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The state has been worst hit in a fire season that started in the southern hemisphere spring [Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP Photo]

    "We've got some deteriorating weather conditions over the coming days, particularly Monday and worsening through to Tuesday," he said.

    An emergency warning was issued on Sunday for Victoria's east as conditions worsen with a total fire ban in place across the state. Melbourne, the state's capital, was set to reach 43C (109F) on Monday with strong winds also forecast.

    Meanwhile, Morrison has called for Sydney's New Year's Eve fireworks to go ahead despite the wildfires, saying it would represent "Australia's resiliency".

    "The world looks at Sydney every single year and they look at our vibrancy, they look at our passion, they look at our success," he said. "In the midst of the challenges that we face, subject to the safety considerations, I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country."

    The City of Sydney Council gave the greenlight although fire authorities warned that the spectacle could be cancelled if catastrophic conditions were declared.

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    SOURCE: News agencies