Wildfires Trap Thousands on Beach in Australia as Death Toll Rises

Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted last week amid the ongoing bushfire crisis that his government would not be 'panicked' into changing its climate policy.

Dec 31, 2019
Children wear face masks at the showgrounds in the New South Wales town of Bega where people are camping after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires on Dec. 31, 2019. Credit: Sean Davey/AFP/Getty Images

Children wear face masks in the smoke-filled air at the showgrounds in Bega, New South Wales, where people are camping after being evacuated from sites affected by bushfires on Dec. 31, 2019. Australia has seen heat waves with record temperatures this month. Credit: Sean Davey/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of people in Australia have been forced to flee their homes as wildfires spread, with some taking refuge on beaches after the flames blocked their escape routes.

In Australia's most populous state of New South Wales, authorities said two people had died and one person was unaccounted for, while in the neighboring state of Victoria, four people were unaccounted for on Tuesday morning. The fatalities brought the death toll to at least 11 people, including three firefighters.

Wildfires across Australia have been burning for more than two months, with the ones in New South Wales labelled by fire authorities the worst in the state's history.

Linda Reynolds, Australia's defense minister, said the military would deploy helicopters, an aircraft and two naval ships to help people trapped by fires.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said he had requested more firefighters from both the U.S. and Canada. He said weather and smoke conditions were making it difficult for helicopters and aircraft used for fighting fires to operate.

People in the affected areas took shelter on beaches, or moved from rural areas to evacuation centers in larger towns.

In Mallacoota—one of the worst affected areas—thousands of people took shelter on the beach, at a community center or in boats offshore in Eastern Victoria, where the sky turned a vivid red and black as the fire approached.

"We've got three strike teams sitting in with the community, literally standing side-by-side with our community at the beachfront," Victoria's Country Fire Authority chief, Steve Warrington, said. "Reports from crews I spoke to on the ground ... [said] it is pitch-black. It is quite scary in that community."

Shane Fitzsimmons, New South Wales fire chief, confirmed that many residents and holidaymakers had been told it was too late to leave their locations.

Prime Minister: We Won't Change Climate Policy

Last week, Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologized for holidaying in Hawaii during the nation's deadly bushfire crisis but insisted his government would not be panicked into changing its climate policy. 

"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," said Morrison on a visit to the rural fire service headquarters in Sydney on Dec. 22, a day after he returned to Australia. "I apologize for that." 

Morrison's unannounced holiday had sparked fierce criticism and street protests. The vacation coincided with what had been one of the worst weeks in a month-long bushfire crisis that has blanketed the nation's largest cities in toxic smoke amid heat waves with record temperatures. 

Morrison, whose government is a staunch supporter of the coal industry, has acknowledged there is a link between climate change and the unprecedented bushfire emergency sweeping the nation. But he said climate change was just one of many factors responsible for the fires and rejected calls for his government to take stronger action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He accused some opponents of using the disaster to score political points. 

"What we will not do is act in a knee-jerk or crisis or panicked mode. A panic approach and response to anything does not help. It puts people at risk ... people can expect my government to do what it promised to do," he said on Dec. 22. 

Australia's maximum temperatures on Dec. 30, 2019. A temperature of 36 degrees Celsius is equivalent to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: Australian Government/Bureau of Meteorology

Australia's maximum temperatures on Dec. 30, 2019. A temperature of 36 degrees Celsius is equivalent to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: Australian Government/Bureau of Meteorology

The Liberal-National coalition has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, under the Paris Climate Agreement. But since coming to power in 2013 and axing a national carbon tax, the government has failed to cut emissions meaningfully. 

Canberra is lobbying to use carbon credits it received for overachieving on a previous climate change agreement, the 1997 Kyoto protocol, to help meets its Paris emissions reduction targets. 

Australia was one of several nations blamed by activists for the failure of UN climate talks in Madrid earlier this month to agree on rules for a new global carbon market, which would enable countries to pay each other for projects that reduce emissions. 

"If you want this carry-over it is just cheating," said Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris accord. "Australia was willing in a way to destroy the whole system because that is the way to destroy the whole Paris Agreement." 

'A Wake-Up Call'

Meanwhile, Sydney city authorities said the New Year's Eve fireworks—a major tourist attraction for the state which brings in $130m for the NSW economy—would go ahead on Tuesday after fire authorities granted organizers an exemption from the total fire ban in the area.

A petition calling for it to be scrapped in light of the fires had gathered 280,000 signatures by midday on Tuesday. Sydney Mayor Clover Moore said while the blazes were "a wake-up call for our governments to start making effective contributions to reduce global emissions," planning for the event started 15 months ago.

The fires have also hit the states of Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.

Reporting on Morrison's Dec. 22 response by Jamie Smyth. Additional reporting by Leslie Hook.

© The Financial Times Limited 2019. All Rights Reserved. Not to be further redistributed, copied or modified in any way.

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