Cooler weather helps Australian firefighters; PM Scott Morrison returns from holiday

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Published: December 22, 2019 6:04:24 AM

Conditions are expected to remain favourable over coming days.

australia, australia fireFlames engulf a row of trees at the side of a road on Gospers Mountain in New South Wales, Australia. (Reuters)

Fire conditions eased on some of the major fronts burning across Australia on Sunday after a cool weather change, with firefighters trying to contain blazes before hotter conditions are expected to return at the end of the week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the Rural Fire Service (RFS) headquarters in Sydney, having returned from a holiday in Hawaii on Saturday night that has drawn sharp criticism as the wildfires crisis in his home state deepened.

After the deaths of two firefighters on Thursday night, Morrison announced he would return home early, and on Sunday he acknowledged his holiday had caused anxiety.

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 as a combination of extreme heat and strong winds had created “catastrophic” conditions in some areas.

“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, although none were burning at the emergency level that a number were classed at during Saturday’s heat and wind.

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.

Conditions are expected to remain favourable over coming days and firefighters will work to contain some of the firefronts near communities, particularly in the Blue Mountains region to the west of Sydney.

“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,” Prime Minister Morrison said.

Australia has been fighting wildfires for months as hot, dry conditions created an early start to the fire season, with blazes destroying more than 700 homes and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland.

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”.

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