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Sydney greenlights New Year's fireworks to show 'optimism' in face of blazes

Rural Fire Service crews operating near the town of Tahmoor in the southwest of Sydney, Australia, December 19, 2019.
Rural Fire Service crews operating near the town of Tahmoor in the southwest of Sydney, Australia, December 19, 2019. AAP Image, Dean Lewins, via Reuters

Sydney’s iconic New Year’s Eve fireworks will go ahead despite the wildfire crisis to show the world Australia’s resiliency, the prime minister said, while authorities on Sunday braced for conditions to deteriorate with high temperatures.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison also announced financial support for some volunteer firefighters in New South Wales, the state worst hit by wildfires ravaging the nation.

“The world looks at Sydney every single year and they look at our vibrancy, they look at our passion, they look at our success,” he said. “In the midst of the challenges that we face, subject to the safety considerations, I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country.”

The City of Sydney Council gave the green light, although fire authorities warned that the fireworks could be cancelled if catastrophic conditions are declared.

New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro, for his part, said the spectacle should be called off. “The risk is too high and we must respect our exhausted volunteers,” he wrote on social media Monday.

 

Canberra cancels

As the wildfire danger worsens in oppressive summer heat and pressure was building for Sydney’s iconic celebrations to be scrapped, New Year’s Eve fireworks in Canberra were cancelled

Temperatures on Tuesday were set to hit 38°C in Australia’s capital city. Organisers in Canberra said other activities, including live music performances, could also be cancelled.

“It is a sensible decision for us not to proceed with the fireworks,” said the capital territory’s Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan.

A petition to cancel the Sydney fireworks and use the money to fight the bushfires ringing the city has topped 260,000 signatures.

Sydney is spending AU$6.5 million (€4 million) on this year’s display – funds that the Change.org petition argues would be better spent on supporting volunteer firefighters and farmers suffering through a brutal drought.

The massive fireworks display on Sydney Harbour “may traumatise some people”, the petition says, “as there is enough smoke in the air”.

'Catastrophic year'

Toxic smoke haze from bushfires raging across Australia has blanketed Sydney and other major cities for weeks. Entire towns have been left in ruins by devastating blazes in worst-hit New South Wales state, where eight people have died and an area the size of Belgium burnt to cinders.

“2019 has been a catastrophic year in Australia for Floods and Fires,” the petition states. "All states should say NO to FIREWORKS.”

 

Morrison said that eligible volunteer firefighters would receive AU$300 (€187) a day, up to AU$6,000 (€3,745) in total, if called out to battle blazes for more than 10 days. The compensation focused on people who are self-employed or work for small and medium businesses.

“The early and prolonged nature of this fire season has made a call beyond what is typically made on our volunteer firefighters,” he said.

Morrison, who has been under pressure since taking a much-criticised family vacation to Hawaii during the wildfire crisis, announced last week that volunteer firefighters from the federal public sector will receive paid leave entitlements.

The opposition Labor party has been pressing the government to consider widespread compensation for volunteer firefighters.

“A lot of people are using up their annual leave [to fight fires] ... A lot of people are just missing their families,” said Sean Warren, a volunteer firefighter for about seven years. "They’ve skipped Christmas with their families and their grandchildren. So yeah, it’s a wide extreme of sacrifice that people have been putting in.”

Morrison said the compensation was necessary so that the New South Wales fires commissioner is in a position to continue to call out the volunteer force.

The programme is expected to cost AU$50 million (€31 million) but will be uncapped with the first AU$10 million (€6 million) being made available next month. Morrison said it would be offered to other states and territories requesting help.

‘Deteriorating weather conditions’

Wildfires have also flared in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, has received the brunt of the wildfire catastrophe, which has killed nine people nationwide and razed more than 1,000 homes in the past few months.

High temperatures in the country’s east are expected until the new year. Sydney’s western suburbs were set to hit 41°C Sunday before peaking at 44°C on Tuesday.

 

Fire danger in Sydney and northern New South Wales is currently very high.

New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said 85 fires were still burning across the state with almost half of them not contained.

“We’ve got some deteriorating weather conditions over the coming days, particularly Monday and worsening through to Tuesday,” he said.

An emergency warning was issued Sunday for Victoria’s east as conditions worsen. Melbourne, the state’s capital, was set to reach 43°C on Monday.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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