World

Australian PM apologizes for taking Hawaii vacation amid deadly wildfires at home

Prime Minister Scott Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and children amid public anger at his absence from Australia at a time of national crisis.

As fresh Canadian fire crews arrive to battle blaze, Scott Morrison faces public anger

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen in Melbourne on Dec. 12. Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and children amid public anger at his absence from Australia as deadly wildfires raged across several states. (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday apologized for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as deadly wildfires raged across several states, destroying homes and claiming the lives of two volunteer firefighters.

Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and children amid public anger at his absence from Australia at a time of national crisis. He arrived home Saturday and on Sunday morning spoke to reporters while visiting the headquarters of the Rural Fire Service in Sydney.

"If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions," Morrison said. "I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it."

He added: "But as prime minister, you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism."

Morrison said this was not a time for political point-scoring but a "time to be kind to each other." He said he is not a trained firefighter, "but I'm comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here just simply so I can be here, alongside them, as they are going through this terrible time."

Morrison also answered critics who say his government has not done enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in the spate of fires burning across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. He said there were also "many other factors" responsible for the unprecedented number of fires during a record-breaking heatwave.

"There is no argument ... about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world," he said. "But I'm sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event — it's not a credible suggestion to make that link."

Rural Fire Service Commission Shane Fizsimmons described Saturday as an "awful day" for firefighters as strong southerly winds fanned more than 100 fires in New South Wales alone.

Dozens of homes have been lost since Thursday in massive wildfires, including the Gospers Mountain blaze that covered more than 460,000 hectares. A fire-generated thunderstorm formed over one blaze at Shoalhaven on Saturday, escalating the fire danger.

Thirty firefighters from Canada and nine from the United States were among fresh crews set to join the battle against the fires on Sunday.

Canadians ready to battle blaze

A total of 69 Canadians eventually will take part. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre says 21 highly trained staff from a variety of agencies left Canada on Dec. 3, for a 38-day deployment in New South Wales after the centre received an official request for assistance.

The second group of 30 Canadians will have a 38-day deployment in the fire zone, and a further 18 are leaving on Dec. 30 for about a month.

Kim Connors, executive director of the Winnipeg-based CIFFC, says that Canada has called on Australian firefighters four times since 2015, and the "agreements are reciprocal in nature so it was the first time that Australia has needed help from Canada."

The CIFFC says crews from Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Yukon, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. are assisting with a variety of tasks including roles in command, aviation, planning, logistics and operations.

Watch: Canadians join wildfires fight in Australia:

Two volunteer firefighters lost their lives on Saturday after a tree fell on their truck.

Balmoral wiped out

The areas hardest hit include Lithgow and along the Bells Line of Road in the upper Blue Mountains, and the Wollondilly Shire villages of Buxton, Balmoral and Bargo which were ravaged for the second time in three days.

The village of Balmoral southwest of Sydney has been all but wiped out by the Green Wattle Creek firestorm that roared through the area twice in three days,

"It came so fast, it was overwhelming how fast it came over. It just rushed to the front of the property. It just took over all the trees, it crowned all the trees," said Balmoral resident Marie Hurley.

"And then with the wind just whirling, whirling, whirling, all the embers started flying over here and everything so dry, so dead. It didn't take much for everything to just spark up and start."

One man escaped the fire by ducking inside a coffin-sized kiln.

"When it came, it came in like three or four minutes, just a big plume of black smoke and then ember fallout. So I ran around all the buildings and turned the pumps on and got sprinklers on the roofs and on the walls. That took maybe five minutes, I suppose," said Balmoral resident Steve Harrison.

"I went to my ute, but my garden was already on fire here. And the driveway was on fire, and the road was on fire. So I realized I couldn't evacuate. So the day before, I had actually built myself a small kiln down the back. And a coffin sized kiln just big enough for me to crawl inside. I hid in there for half an hour while the firestorm went over."
 

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