Australian leader curtails holiday as firefighters killed in huge blazes

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a rare public apology as he cut short a Hawaiian vacation on Friday after two volunteer firefighters were killed battling blazes that are ravaging much of the country’s east coast.

Police block the Old Hume Highway as a blaze jumps the road near the town of Tahmoor as the Green Wattle Creek Fire threatens a number of communities in the south west of Sydney, Australia, December 19, 2019. AAP Image/Dean Lewins/via REUTERS

Australia has been fighting wildfires in the east for weeks, with blazes destroying more than 700 homes and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland.

The death of the two firefighters overnight when their fire truck was struck by a falling tree as it traveled through the front line of a fire brought the death toll since the start of October to eight.

“This is an absolutely devastating event in what has already been an incredibly difficult day and fire season,” the New South Wales (NSW) state Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

Shortly after the pair’s deaths were announced, Morrison issued a statement saying he would return as soon as possible from a family holiday in Hawaii, a trip that has drawn sharp criticism in recent days as the wildfires crisis deepened.

Morrison’s conservative Liberal-National coalition government has been under sustained pressure to defend its climate change policies as it has downplayed links to the unprecedented early arrival and severity of this year’s bushfire season.

“I deeply regret any offense caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” Morrison said in the statement.

Morrison later told 2GB radio that the trip had been planned as a surprise to his young daughters to replace leave originally scheduled for January that he had canceled because of official trips to Japan and India.

Hundreds of protesters had gathered outside his Sydney residence on Thursday. One protestor, wearing an Hawaiian shirt, carried a sign reading, “ScoMo, where the bloody hell are you?” referencing the leader’s nickname and a well-known international advertisement for Tourism Australia.

Australia is one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita because of its reliance on coal-fired power plants. It has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26% from 2005 levels by 2030, but critics accuse Morrison of paying lip service to that commitment.

In June, the government approved the construction of a new coal mine in Queensland state by India’s Adani Enterprises that is expected to produce 8 million to 10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year.

As Morrison was apologizing on radio on Friday morning, opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese was serving breakfast to firefighters near the front line of a fire in rural Bilpin.

The RFS named the dead volunteer firefighters as Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, and Geoffrey Keaton, 32 – both fathers to 19-month- old children. Three other firefighters were injured in the truck crash.

Earlier on Thursday, two male firefighters were airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces, arms and legs, while a female colleague was taken by ambulance to hospital after they were engulfed by flames.

CHRISTMAS TRAVEL WARNING

The fires have resulted in days of heavy pollution in Sydney, pushing air quality to unprecedented hazardous levels and resulting in viral images of heavy smoke haze over the usually sparkling harbor and landmarks like the Opera House.

The fires are being spurred this week, by record temperatures across the country which led New South Wales, the most populous state with 7 million people, to declare a seven-day state of emergency.

Thursday’s declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities.

Temperatures eased on Friday but were expected to return to near-record highs on Saturday, which firefighters fear will stoke some of the around 100 fires burning across the state.

A helicopter is seen during a bushfire near Bilpin, 90 km north west of Sydney, Australia, December 19, 2019. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas/via REUTERS

Days out from Christmas, a time when many Australians head to the coast for the holidays, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged people to reconsider travel plans.

“What is most important for us is that everyone is safe and if that means changing your plans for Christmas, we ask you do to that,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

(GRAPHIC: Forests in flames: Images from space show Australia’s bushfires in different light – here)

Reporting by Colin Packham and Wayne Cole; editing by Jane Wardell

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