Hundreds of properties were destroyed across southeastern Australia after searing temperatures and strong winds exacerbated catastrophic wildfires Saturday in one of the worst days of the weeks-long crisis.
Dozens of communities, from small towns on the south coast of New South Wales, to alpine villages in the neighboring Victoria state, were razed as fires grew so large they generated dry thunderstorms. Milder weather, including patchy rain, across scorched areas brought some relief Sunday, though flame-fanning wind gusts have frustrated efforts to quell about 200 blazes before conditions worsen later in the week, authorities said.
Thousands of people, including tourists, heeded the advice of authorities and evacuated a 350-kilometer (217-mile) stretch of coastline as well as dangerous inland areas over the past few days to escape the intensifying infernos. But many remained, hosing down their properties to protect against falling embers as they anxiously waited to see if the winds would blow the fire front in their direction.
The unfolding tragedy, that’s blackened more than 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia alone, has prompted millions of dollars of donations and support from international celebrities, sports stars, and the British Royal Family.
Two people died in wildfires that destroyed more than a third of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, devastating the national park and farmland, and severely damaging the luxury Southern Ocean Lodge resort. Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney, reached a record 48.9 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) Saturday, symbolic of the dangerous weather conditions that have fanned ferocious flames and sparked new blazes further south.
Qantas Airways Ltd. canceled 27 flights Sunday afternoon arriving in and departing from Canberra, where air pollution was at least four times higher than the minimum threshold for “hazardous,” prompting the release of particulate-filter masks from the national stockpile. Australia Post suspended mail deliveries to the national capital Friday, citing the impact of the poor air quality on the safety of its workers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday an unprecedented level of military support to boost firefighting and recovery efforts as the national death toll since September rose to 23. A video set to electronic music posted on Morrison’s Twitter and Facebook accounts outlining the additional measures sparked thousands of comments.
Key authorities in New South Wales and Victoria welcomed the news of the deployment of as many as 3,000 army reservists, but voiced disappointment that they weren’t consulted ahead of the decision or briefed before Morrison detailed his response plans to the media.
The Australia Defence Association lambasted the 50-second clip, which spawned mocking renditions and drew harsh criticism from Kevin Rudd, a former Labor party leader who served as prime minister twice from December 2007 to September 2013.
Morrison, 51, defended the video, telling reporters Sunday that it was produced to “communicate as simply and helpfully” as possible what the government is doing to assist people. A link initially pinned to the post to donate to the leader’s own Liberal party gave the appearance of a political advertisement, critics said.
“It came out as a Liberal party ad,” said Stewart Jackson, a senior lecturer in the department of government and international relations at the University of Sydney. “It seems to have generated a certain amount of ire that the ad has been done before you’ve fully organized all the different branches of government to be able to work together.”
The criticism adds to a backlash against Morrison for his handling of the wildfires — highlighted by his curtailed trip to Hawaii just days after declaring a national disaster — and tepid acknowledgment of the role of climate change in fueling them.
The prime minister was heckled on Thursday by angry residents when he visited the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo, where two people died last week, while others declined to shake his hand and called for more resources to tackle the disaster.
“Morrison has been found considerably wanting in terms of his leadership,” Jackson said. “You can’t imagine previous prime ministers acting in what seems such a self-serving way.”
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