MELBOURNE, Australia – Hundreds of properties were destroyed across southeastern Australia after searing temperatures and strong winds exacerbated catastrophic wildfires Saturday in one of the worst days of the weekslong crisis.
Dozens of communities, from small towns on the south coast of New South Wales to alpine villages in the neighboring Victoria state, were razed as fires grew so large they generated dry thunderstorms. Milder weather, including patchy rain, across scorched areas brought some relief Sunday, though flame-fanning wind gusts have frustrated efforts to quell about 200 blazes before conditions worsened.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday an unprecedented level of military support to boost firefighting and recovery efforts. The national death toll since September is now at 24.
The moves did little to tamp down the criticism that he had been slow to act, even as he has downplayed the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say played a key role in supercharging the blazes.
"There has been a lot of blame being thrown around," Morrison said. "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."
Thousands of people have heeded the advice of authorities and evacuated a 217-mile stretch of coastline as well as dangerous inland areas over the past few days to escape the intensifying infernos. But many remained, hosing down their properties to protect against falling embers as they anxiously waited to see if winds would blow the fire's advance in their direction.
The unfolding tragedy that has blackened more than 12.3 million acres across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia alone has prompted millions of dollars of donations and support from international celebrities, sports stars and the British Royal Family.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.