Australian PM defends climate policies as cooler weather helps firefighters

SYDNEY (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 the expected return of hotter conditions at the end of the week.

FILE PHOTO: A home is seen as smoke from the Grose Valley Fire rises in the distance, at Bilpin, New South Wales, Australia, December 21, 2019. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts via REUTERS/File Photo

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

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

“I get it that people would have been upset to know that I was holidaying with my family while their families were under great stress,” Morrison said.

He also addressed his conservative Liberal-National coalition’s climate policies, which his government has been forced to defend following the severity of this year’s bushfires. Morrison said there was no argument that there is a link between climate change and weather events around the world.

“But I’m sure people would equally acknowledge the direct connection to any single fire event is not a credible suggestion to make that link,” Morrison told journalists.

Earlier this month, Australia drew criticism at a U.N. climate summit in Madrid for its climate-change policy of using old carbon credits to count toward future emissions targets.

Australia is one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita because of its reliance on coal-fired power plants. It has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26% from 2005 levels by 2030, but critics accuse Morrison of paying lip service to that commitment.

Morrison recommitted to those policies, which he took to a general election in May, on Sunday.

FORECAST FOR FIRES

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 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 and one burning at an emergency level.

Dozens of properties were reported damaged or destroyed. A man who had been unaccounted for early Sunday after staying on Saturday to protect his property was later found safe.

“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 favorable 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.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

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”.

(GRAPHIC: Forests in flames – Images from space show Australia’s bushfires in different light – here)

Reporting by John Mair in Sydney and Will Ziebell in Melbourne; Editing by Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler

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