Aussie troops fan out, A$2b pledge for 'long road' after fires

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A Royal Australian Navy MRH-90 helicopter crew member, observes the fires on approach to Cann River in Gippsland, Victoria, Australia January 5, 2020. — Private Michael Currie/Australian Department of Defence handout via Reuters
Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - A Royal Australian Navy MRH-90 helicopter crew member, observes the fires on approach to Cann River in Gippsland, Victoria, Australia January 5, 2020. — Private Michael Currie/Australian Department of Defence handout via Reuters

SYDNEY, Jan 7 — Reserve troops fanned out across fire-ravaged regions in three Australian states yesterday after a horror weekend, as the government pledged A$2 billion (RM5.7 billion) over two years to help recover from the devastating months-long crisis.

Catastrophic bushfires have turned swathes of land into smouldering, blackened hellscapes and destroyed an area about the size of the island of Ireland, according to official figures.

Authorities warn the disaster still has weeks or months to run.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose government has been criticised for its slow response to the emergency, pledged A$2 billion of taxpayer money for a national recovery fund.

“It's a long road ahead and we will be with these communities every step of the way as they rebuild,” Morrison said.

Firefighters joined by fresh teams from the US and Canada took advantage of rainy and cooler conditions to tackle out-of-control blazes ahead of rising temperatures forecast later this week.

In the biggest-ever call-up of reserves, military teams were deployed across eastern Australia to help emergency services assess the damage, restore power and deliver supplies of food, water and fuel to cut-off communities.

For the first time in Australian history the government also deployed its medical assistance team to help evacuees. The team is normally sent to other nations to lend support in the aftermath of their disasters.

“There is no room for complacency, especially as we have over 130 fires burning across (New South Wales) state still,” Premier of New South Wales state Gladys Berejiklian said yesterday.

'New normal'

Almost five million hectares have been razed across New South Wales and more than 1.2 million hectares in Victoria since late September, officials said.

Twenty-five people have lost their lives, after police in New South Wales confirmed yesterday that a 71-year-old man reported missing had died, raising the toll by one. Another person was still unaccounted for in the nation's most populous state.

More than 1,800 homes have been damaged.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews established a bushfire recovery agency to help devastated towns. It will be a permanent body, he said, as intense fires will become commonplace.

“We should just be honest about the fact that we're going to see more and more fires, more and more damage as each fire season comes... This is the new normal,” Andrews told reporters.

The chair of the newly established Victoria state bushfire appeal fund, Pat McNamara, added that this year's summer bushfire season was a “creeping disaster.”

“We're still not even into what we would regard as the peak of the fire season,” McNamara told national broadcaster ABC.

In the usually picturesque southeastern town of Eden, Holly Spence said she spent more than 12 hours defending her family's farm on Saturday, less than a week after saving it on New Year's Eve.

“We don't want to go through this for a third time,” the 28-year-old told AFP.

Fiona Kennelly, 50, who evacuated with 24 members of her extended family to a motel outside Eden, said she was relieved the easing conditions allowed them to get some respite from the crisis.

“It's good to see daylight at the right time again,” after the skies had been turning pitch-black in the afternoons, she told AFP.

Public anger

The impact of the bushfires has spread beyond affected communities, with heavy smoke engulfing the country's second-largest city Melbourne and the national capital Canberra.

Some government departments were shut in Canberra as the city's air quality once again ranked as the world's poorest, according to independent online air-quality index monitor Air Visual.

The disaster has sparked growing public anger with Morrison. Rallies are planned on Friday to call on his government to step up efforts to tackle climate change, which experts say have helped fuel the fires.

In Los Angeles, Hollywood superstar Russell Crowe said in a message at the Golden Globes that the disaster was “climate change-based” and we need to act “based on science.”

Even as fires raged on the outskirts of Sydney, the country's cricketers gave the country something to rejoice in, crushing New Zealand by 279 runs yesterday to sweep their Test series.

Retired spin legend Shane Warne separately said he would auction the “beloved” baggy green cap worn during his 145-Test cricket career to raise money for bushfire victims.

“Everyone is in this together and we continue to find ways to contribute and help on a daily basis,” Warne said on Instagram. — AFP

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