Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 February 2020

Australian government pledges $1.4bn to bushfire recovery

Firefighters use improved conditions to prepare for more hot weather later this week

Reserve troops fanned out across fire-ravaged regions in three Australian states on Monday after a horror weekend, as the government pledged $1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn) over two years to help recovery efforts.

Bushfires have destroyed about six million hectares of land, with authorities saying the disaster still has weeks or months to run.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose government has been criticised for its slow response to the emergency, pledged A$2 billion (Dh5.1bn) of taxpayer money for a national recovery fund.

"It's a long road ahead and we will be with these communities every step of the way as they rebuild," Mr Morrison said.

Firefighters joined by teams from the US and Canada took advantage of rain and cooler conditions to tackle out-of-control blazes before temperatures increase later this week.

In the biggest call up of reserves, military personnel were sent across eastern Australia to help emergency services assess the damage, restore power and deliver food, water and fuel to cut-off communities.

For the first time in Australian history the government also sent its medical assistance team, a group normally sent to other nations to lend support in the aftermath of disasters, to help people who fled the fires.

"There is no room for complacency, especially as we have more than 130 fires burning across New South Wales still," Premier of New South Wales state Gladys Berejiklian said on Monday.

About five million hectares of land have been razed across New South Wales and more than 1.2 million hectares have been destroyed in the state of Victoria since September.

The fires have killed 24 people and damaged about 2,000 homes.

Two people are missing in New South Wales, the country's most populous state.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews established a bushfire recovery agency to help devastated towns. It will be a permanent body, he said, as intense fires will become commonplace.

"We should just be honest about the fact we're going to see more and more fires, more and more damage as each fire season comes … this is the new normal," Mr Andrews said.

The head of Victoria's newly established bushfire appeal fund, Pat McNamara, said this year's summer bushfire season was a "creeping disaster".

"We're still not even into what we would regard as the peak of the fire season," he said.

In the usually picturesque town of Eden in New South Wales, Holly Spence, 28, said she spent more than 12 hours defending her family's farm on Saturday, less than a week after saving it on New Year's Eve.

"We don't want to go through this for a third time," she said.

Fiona Kennelly, 50, who evacuated the town with 24 members of her extended family and is staying at a motel outside the town, said she was relieved the improved conditions allowed them to get some respite from the crisis.

"It's good to see daylight at the right time again," she said.

The effect of the bushfires has spread beyond affected communities, with heavy smoke engulfing Melbourne, the country's second-largest city, and the capital, Canberra.

Some government departments were shut in Canberra as the city's air quality was once again ranked the world's poorest, according to independent online air-quality index monitor Air Visual.

The disaster has caused growing public anger with Mr Morrison. Rallies are planned on Friday to call on his government to step up efforts to tackle climate change, which experts say has helped fuel the fires.

Australian actor Russell Crowe said he was back home fighting the fires.

He sent a message about effects of climate change to Monday night's Golden Globes, held in Los Angeles, which was read out by actress Jennifer Aniston. "We need to act on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future."

Australian actress Cate Blanchett attended the award ceremony and praised the volunteer firefighters battling the blazes. "When one country faces a climate disaster, we all face a climate disaster. We're in it together," she said.

Updated: January 6, 2020 12:32 PM

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