Cooler weather brought some respite to firefighters battling to contain blazes on several major fronts across southeastern Australia on Sunday, but temperatures are expected to climb again at the end of the week threatening more fires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the Rural Fire Service (RFS) headquarters in Sydney, after returning from a holiday in Hawaii that drew public anger as bushfires ravaged parts of his home state and shrouded the country’s biggest city in hazardous smog.
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Morrison apologised and 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, Victoria and South Australia states, where fires had been burning out of control on Friday and Saturday fuelled 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 around 100 km (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.
Today in Blackheath – locals have just received a text saying the safest thing to do is leave if their path is clear @AJEnglish @AJENews #sydneysmoke #bushfiresNSW pic.twitter.com/15PSnuERpp
— 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.
“This (fire) season is much more lengthened and has started a lot earlier, and there isn’t the respite rains that we can expect any time soon, and that is making this season harder than many we have seen in a long time,” Morrison said.
Hot and dry conditions created an early start to Australia’s fire season, with ten people dead and blazes destroying more than 800 homes and at least 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”.