Australian PM apologizes for vacationing as firefighters killed in huge blazes
Scott Morrison cuts short Hawaii visit after 2 volunteer firefighters die
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has issued a rare public apology and cut short a Hawaiian vacation in response to mounting public anger after two volunteer firefighters were killed battling bushfires sweeping the east coast.
Some areas of Sydney are set for "catastrophic" conditions on Saturday, and the fires are now engulfing other parts of the country. One person was killed in a car crash on Friday near South Australia's capital city of Adelaide where an emergency warning is in place, though the precise circumstances surrounding the death is not yet clear.
Australia has been fighting wildfires across three states for weeks, with blazes destroying more than 700 homes and nearly 1.2 million hectares of bushland.
The deaths of Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, when their fire truck was struck by a falling tree as it travelled through the front line of a fire overnight brought the fires death toll in New South Wales to eight since the start of October.
Ten more firefighters were seriously injured on Thursday, with four in South Australia being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.
"The worst imaginable set of circumstances unfolded," New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney. "This hurts everybody to the core."
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.
Watch aerial footage of the raging fires:
"I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time," he said in the statement.
Morrison later told 2GB radio the trip had been planned as a surprise to his young daughters to replace leave originally scheduled for January that he had cancelled because of official trips to Japan and India.
His return comes as firefighters prepare for "catastrophic" fire danger — the most severe level — in NSW on Saturday as searing heat and high winds are forecast, leading officials to urge people to evacuate their homes early if they live close to bushland.
"It is a fairly strong likelihood that we will lose homes tomorrow. It would be a miracle if we don't," RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told reporters in Sydney.
Canadians in Australia to help
A group of 21 Canadian fire suppression experts are in the country, giving their time over the holidays to help bring the fires under control.
Jane Park, a fire and vegetation specialist with Parks Canada, would normally be travelling from Banff, Alta., to Winnipeg to meet with her family members over Christmas. Instead, she's at a fire control centre in Kempsey, Australia, north of Sydney, hoping to provide expertise and bring some knowledge home as well.
Watch Jane Park talk about the Canadians helping with firefighting efforts
"We're looking at the weather and the fire behaviour and where the highest threats are, and then trying to determine the course of action to suppress it," she said.
Park is working on a fire that is over 140,000 hectares in size, near national parks and rural communities, and people are happy for the help.
"As soon as people hear our accents, they ask if we're the Canadians," she said. "There's so much gratitude and thanks here, it's just been amazing. The control centre's lined with photos and drawings by the local school children."
Government downplays link to climate change policies
More than 200 fires are burning across Australia — 70 of them are classified as uncontrolled, mostly in NSW.
In South Australia, more than 120 blazes have broken out in catastrophic conditions. Bracing for more potential fatalities, authorities said an emergency fire in Lameroo, 210 km east of Adelaide, may pose a threat to lives directly in its path and urged residents to flee now.
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.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Morrison's Sydney residence on Thursday. One protester, wearing a 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.
Unprecedented poor air quality
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 per cent 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 eight million to 10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year.
As Morrison was apologizing on radio on Friday morning, Anthony Albanese, Opposition Labor Party leader, was serving breakfast to firefighters near the front line of a fire in rural Bilpin.
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 harbour and landmarks like the Opera House.
The fires are being spurred this week by record temperatures across the country, which led NSW, the most populous state with seven 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.
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 to do that," Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
With files from CBC News and The Associated Press