Australian crews race to contain blazes as damage bill soars
SYDNEY (AP) — Bolstered by cooler weather and desperately needed rain, exhausted firefighters in Australia raced to shore up defenses against deadly wildfires before the blazes flare again within days when scorching temperatures are expected to return.
The first hints of the financial toll from the disaster began to emerge on Tuesday. The Insurance Council of Australia said the estimated damage bill had doubled in two days, with insurance claims reaching 700 million Australian dollars ($485 million).
That estimate comes one day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was committing an extra 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion) toward the recovery effort in addition to the tens of millions of dollars that have already been promised. Morrison’s funding announcement came amid fierce criticism from many Australians who say he has been too slow to respond to the crisis. He has also faced backlash for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.
The fires, fueled by drought and the country’s hottest and driest year on record, have been raging since September, months earlier than is typical for Australia’s annual wildfire season. So far, the blazes have killed 25 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland.
In New South Wales state, 130 fires were still burning on Tuesday, around 50 of which were uncontrolled. The day’s cooler, rainier weather was providing thousands of exhausted firefighters a “psychological and emotional” reprieve as they scrambled to strengthen containment lines around the blazes before temperatures rise again, said Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
“It really is about shoring up protection to limit the damage potential and the outbreak of these fires over the coming days,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The rain was not heavy enough to extinguish the blazes. Victoria state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said on Monday at least 200 millimeters (8 inches) of rain would need to fall in a short time to snuff out the fires — around 20 times what has fallen across the region in the past day. And officials warned that Australia's wildfire season — which generally lasts through March — was nowhere near its end.
The rain was also complicating firefighters’ attempts to strategically backburn certain areas, and was making the ground slippery for fire trucks.
Thousands of army, navy and air force reservists were being dispatched to battle the fires. On Tuesday, rescue crews were still trying to reach some affected communities. A barge was en route to Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria cut off for days by fires that forced around 4,000 residents and tourists to shelter on beaches over the weekend. About 300 people were still waiting to be evacuated on Tuesday. Heavy smoke squandered the navy’s efforts to airlift the stranded residents out on Monday.
“We know it's frustrating for them,” state response controller Gavin Freeman told Australia's Nine Network on Tuesday. “We made several attempts yesterday to get Blackhawks into them but visibility was too poor and it was too dangerous."