Skip to main content

In this Dec. 30, 2019, aerial photo, wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia.

The Canadian Press

Australia’s government said Monday it was willing to pay “whatever it takes” to help communities recover from deadly wildfires that have ravaged the country.

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.

“The fires are still burning. And they’ll be burning for months to come,” Morrison said. “And so that’s why I outlined today that this is an initial, an additional, investment of $2-billion. If more is needed and the cost is higher, then more will be provided.”

Story continues below advertisement

Morrison’s announcement of the funds, which will go toward rebuilding towns and infrastructure destroyed by the fires, came as the death toll from the disaster rose with the discovery of a body in a remote part of New South Wales. The body is believed to be that of a 71-year-old man who was last seen on New Year’s Eve moving equipment on his property on the state’s south coast, police said in a statement. Police found the body on Monday between the property and a car, both of which had been destroyed by fire.

Another person in southern New South Wales was reported missing, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

Nationwide, at least 25 people have been killed and 2,000 homes destroyed by the blazes, which have so far scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland.

Bushfires burned dangerously out of control on Australia's east coast on Saturday, fuelled by high temperatures and strong winds that had firefighters battling to save lives and property. Reuters

Rain and cooler temperatures on Monday were bringing some relief to communities battling the fires. But the rain was also making it challenging for fire crews to complete strategic burns as they tried to prepare for higher temperatures that have been forecast for later in the week.

“With the more benign weather conditions, it presents some wonderful relief for everybody, the firefighters, the emergency services personnel, but also the communities affected by these fires,” Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told reporters. “But it also presents some real challenges when it comes to implementing tactical and strategic back-burns and other techniques to try and bring these fires under control.”

More than 135 fires were still burning across New South Wales, including almost 70 that were not contained. Officials have warned that the rain won’t put out the largest and most dangerous blazes before conditions deteriorate again.

Victoria state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said at least 200 millimetres (8 inches) of rain would need to fall over a short period of time in order 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.

Story continues below advertisement

“No one can be complacent. We’ve got big fire danger coming our way toward the end of this week,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne. “We are by no means out of this. And the next few days, and indeed the next few months, are going to be challenging.”

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian also urged Australians not to let their guards down.

Australia’s capital, Canberra, had the worst air quality of any major city in the world for much of Monday. The Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for co-ordinating the country’s response to disasters, told all noncritical staff to stay home because of thick smoke choking the city.

The prime minister said the military was attempting to get food, fuel and water to burned-out communities, and engineers were working to reopen roads and resupply evacuation centres. On Kangaroo Island, a refuge off the coast of South Australia state for some of the country’s most endangered creatures, teams had arrived to help euthanize livestock and wild animals injured in the blazes. Hundreds of millions of animals are believed to have died already in the fires across the country.

Heavy smoke, meanwhile, was hampering the navy’s efforts to airlift people out of Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria cut off for days by fires that forced as many as 4,000 residents and tourists to shelter on beaches over the weekend. Around 300 people were still waiting to be evacuated on Monday.

The prime minister’s announcement of relief funds comes as he finds himself under siege for what many Australians have viewed as his lax response to the crisis. On Saturday, he announced he would dispatch 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists to help battle the fires and committed 20 million Australian dollars ($14-million) to lease firefighting aircraft from overseas.

Story continues below advertisement

But the moves did little to tamp down the criticism that Morrison had been slow to act, even as he has downplayed the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.

Wildfires are common during the southern hemisphere summer, and Australians generally take a pragmatic view of them. But this year’s fires arrived unusually early, fed by drought and the country’s hottest and driest year on record.

Scientists say there’s no doubt man-made global warming has played a major role in feeding the fires, along with factors like very dry brush and trees and strong winds.

The environmental group Greenpeace said the relief funds announced by Morrison were “a drop in the ocean,” given the widespread devastation from the fires.

“Every single cent of that money should be contributed by the coal, gas and oil companies whose carbon pollution has caused the climate crisis that has created these extreme fire conditions, right across the country,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific Head of Campaigns Jamie Hanson said in a statement. “Slugging everyday taxpayers with the bill for this just adds insult to injury. These big polluters have become rich by trashing our climate and it’s time that they started coughing up for the repair bill.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Story continues below advertisement

Related topics

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies