Under pressure Australia PM visits beleaguered firefighters

Sydney (AFP) –


Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited firefighters battling Australia's bushfire crisis on Sunday, after cutting short a Hawaiian holiday that unleashed public outrage.

Morrison toured the headquarters of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service -- whose exhausted volunteers have been struggling to contain deadly, out-of-control-blazes for months on end -- where he offered an apology and admitted he had erred in travelling overseas.

"If I had our time over again, and with the benefit of hindsight, we would've made different decisions," he said.

Morrison had departed for a family holiday amid record bushfires that have destroyed an area the size of Belgium and cloaked major cities from Brisbane to Sydney to Canberra in choking toxic fumes.

News of his holiday prompted street protests and widespread criticism on social media, with Australians deploying the hashtag #WhereTheBloodyHellAreYa?

"I apologise," he said. "There have been lessons learned this week," adding that he believed it was time to move on from the controversy.

"I'm sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids, you try and keep it," Morrison said by way of explanation, admitting that "as prime minister, you have other responsibilities."

The embattled prime minister again acknowledged a link between the fires and climate change, but indicated no change in pro-coal policies.

Australia endures bushfires every year but experts say global warming has intensified climatic conditions that allow the fires to thrive.

- Frontlines -

Morrison also praised volunteer firefighters, who in the last 24 hours have faced catastrophic conditions brought by a record heatwave, gale-force winds and a continued lack of rain.

Australia's firefighting force is overwhelmingly made up of volunteers who have been strained by the intensity and the length of this year's fire season.

Conditions eased markedly on Sunday, giving them time to count the toll and try to contain massive blazes near Sydney that are only likely to be extinguished with heavy rainfall.

"We've seen widespread damage and destruction being reported across a number of these fire grounds," said New South Wales Rural Fire Services' boss Shane Fitzsimmons, who earlier described Saturday as "an awful day".

"We are expecting another heavy toll, unfortunately, with estimates that property loss could be in the dozens of buildings."

Officials said two fires -- already big enough to create their own thunderstorms -- to the southwest of Sydney had joined to form another "megafire" on the doorstep of Australia's largest city.

A fire-generated thunderstorm can occur when a smoke plume is cooled as it meets pressure in the atmosphere, creating a cloud capable of producing its own lightning and powerful winds.

The fires have torched at least three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land with at least 10 people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.

So far the fires have only grazed densely populated areas, but some small towns and villages have felt the brunt just days before Christmas.

The state of South Australia has also been hit hard. Two people died in fires there over the past two days, and dozens of firefighters and residents have been treated for injuries and smoke inhalation.

- 'Health emergency' -

Leading doctors have warned of a "public health emergency" given the unprecedented toxic smoke choking Sydney, which worsened to a dense haze on Saturday.

"It is pretty much the whole New South Wales population being exposed to prolonged smoke and because we have never experienced this before, we don't know what the eventual outcome will be," doctor Kim Loo told AFP.

"It probably won't be obvious for months, or even years," added Loo, who is also a member of advocacy group Doctors for the Environment.

Hospitals have recorded sharp increases in emergency room visits for heat exhaustion and respiratory problems.

Loo said elderly patients, as well as children and outdoor workers were the most at risk, warning the health sector is "not prepared" to deal with such cases.

Vulnerable people in New South Wales have been urged to stay indoors amid worries the scorching heat combined with the toxic smoke could cause "severe illness, hospital admissions and even death".