Australian bushfire crisis: This is not the time for blame, says Scott Morrison

Prime Minister defends leadership as death toll from bushfires raging in three states reaches 24

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his leadership in the face of fierce bushfires that have swept through the country, killing 24 people and destroying 2,000 homes, saying that this is “not the time for blame”.

Cooler temperatures brought some relief on Sunday, a day after thousands were forced to flee their homes. However, 150 fires were still active in New South Wales state alone, with blazes touching the outer suburbs of Sydney as seaside towns were plunged into darkness and major cities choked by smoke.

Residents were instructed to take shelter in Eden, a town to the south of NSW, near the border with the state of Victoria.

"Visibility was down to about 50 metres, if that, and we had lots of debris falling out of the sky and a lot of white ash," said Eden resident John Steele, 73, who was evacuated with his wife from their rural property late on Saturday.

"The sky is still red," he told AFP on Sunday. "We're not out of the woods yet."

Australia’s capital Canberra was ranked as the city with the poorest air quality in the world on Sunday, as a severe haze from the fires turned the skies red. Some flights were cancelled and a large consignment of P2 face masks, which filter out fine particles from the air, had to be ordered as existing stocks had reportedly dwindled.

Passengers on a flight from Melbourne to Canberra with Australian flag carrier Qantas described the moment their plane hit turbulence from weather generated by the fires.

"It was orange outside of the window, then suddenly it was black, and then the turbulence hit," Passenger Hua Tuo told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "I was jumping off my seat!"

Emergency services met the plane on landing, but no passengers were injured.

Fires also continue to burn out of control in South Australia and Victoria, where four people remain missing in the East Gippsland area.

Conditions are expected to worsen again towards the middle of the week.

The death toll from the fires rose to 24 on Saturday night after a 47-year-old man died defending a friend’s home in the NSW town of Batlow. It came after a father and son perished as they battled flames on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Their family said their losses left them “heart-broken and reeling from this double tragedy”.

Ferries are running around the clock to evacuate thousands of tourists from Kangaroo Island, where the community is preparing for the return of hotter weather in coming days.

Australian authorities have struggled to keep pace with the severity of the unprecedented bushfires, which have scorched an area almost the size of Ireland, prompting many to call for urgent action to combat climate change.

"We're in uncharted territory," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. "We can't pretend that this is something that we have experienced before. It's not."

Tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters have earned praise from across Australia and around the world. The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II said she was "deeply saddened" and thanked the emergency services "who put their own lives in danger" to help communities.

Celebrities have raised millions of dollars to support firefighters and fire-affected communities, including American pop star Pink, who tweeted on Saturday that she was donating US$500,000 (Dh1.8 million). Australian actress Nicole Kidman matched that pledge.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber helped raised A$20 million (Dh51 million) via an online fund-raising campaign promoted via her Instagram page.

Largest peacetime evacuation 

Warships and combat helicopters have been repurposed to help out with the largest maritime evacuation in Australia since World War II – moving some of the 4,000 people trapped for days on the foreshore of Mallacoota to safety.

On Saturday, Mr Morrison announced a large-scale deployment of army, navy and air force reservists to help with evacuation and firefighting efforts. A national recovery agency was also launched to help affected communities.

Prime Minister Morrison has faced widespread criticism for taking a family vacation in Hawaii at the start of the crisis, and then his slowness in deploying national resources.

A video detailing the efforts, set to electronic music and shared on Mr Morrison’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, spawned mocking renditions.

It also later emerged that Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who is leading the fight in New South Wales, had not been informed of the deployment.

"It is fair to say it was disappointing and some surprise to hear about these things through public announcements in the middle of what was one of our worst days this season with the second-highest number of concurrent emergency warning fires ever in the history of New South Wales," he said.

epa08103676 A fire fighting helicopter flies in the sky behind Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to HMAS Albatross in Nowra, New South Wales, Australia, 05 January 2020. According to media reports, at least 1,200 homes in Victoria and New South Wales have been destroyed by fires this season, at least 18 people have died, and more than 5.9 million hectares have been burnt.  EPA/LUKAS COCH / POOL AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

Mr Morrison told reporters on Sunday that the video was produced to “communicate as simply and helpfully” as possible what the government is doing to help people.

"There has been a lot of blame being thrown around," Mr Morrison said at a press conference on Sunday. "And now is the time to focus on the response that is being made … Blame doesn't help anybody at this time and over-analysis of these things is not a productive exercise."

The prime minister has also been dogged by awkward interactions as he visits communities impacted by the fires, with thousands of Australians sharing a video of him being heckled in a small township in NSW. In another widely-shared video, a volunteer firefighter refuses to shake his hand.

A cabinet meeting and a meeting of the national security committee is scheduled for Monday.