Exhausted firefighters welcomed cooler weather and patchy rain in blaze-ravaged southeastern Australia on Monday after a calamitous few days, even as authorities warn of a return to dangerous conditions later this week.
With no end in sight to the monthslong crisis, authorities are counting the cost after the weekend saw properties in small towns on the south coast of New South Wales and alpine villages in neighboring Victoria state razed by fires that grew so large they generated dry thunderstorms. Thousands of people have been evacuated to recreation grounds hastily converted into makeshift camps that are shrouded in toxic smoke.
"There is no room for complacency, especially since we have over 130 fires burning across the state still," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Monday. She said two more people were missing on the state's south coast; the national death toll since the fire season began unseasonably early in September has risen to 24.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced criticism for his belated response in pooling national resources to combat the fires. On Monday he again signaled his conservative government won't toughen policies to combat climate change, which has been blamed for exacerbating a crippling drought that's helped create tinderbox conditions.
On Saturday he announced an unprecedented level of military support to boost firefighting and recovery efforts, while on Monday after an emergency meeting of the Cabinet he said his government will commit $1.4 billion over two years to assist recovery efforts, focused on repairing infrastructure and boosting mental-health care.
"Today's Cabinet was one of great resolve," Morrison said. "It was one where we stood together and said, whatever it takes, whatever it costs, we will ensure the resilience and future of this country."
Asked whether government relief funding and lost revenue due to the fires could jeopardize the government's promise to return the budget to surplus this fiscal year, Morrison said the surplus wasn't a focus compared to dealing with the human cost of the crisis. He said the economy's position of strength was allowing the government to adequately respond to the disaster and its economic implications.
Canberra, an inland city of about 500,000 people, has been one of the hardest hit by the smoke haze that's shrouded southeast Australia for weeks. Early on Monday, the capital again had the world's worst air quality, conditions that prompted the release over the weekend of about 100,000 particulate-filter masks from the national stockpile.
There's little improvement expected in conditions that have already caused the cancellation of dozens of flights as well as postal services.
The hazardous smoke on Monday reached Melbourne, the largest city in Victoria. Australia's navy was deployed to rescue hundreds of stranded holidaymakers in the state who had been forced to huddle on the beach at Mallacoota as a ferocious blaze bore down on the tourist town last week. An airlift evacuation of 300 people there had to be delayed Monday because of thick smoke.
About 200 homes have been destroyed in Victoria, and four people are missing in the state.
Key authorities in New South Wales and Victoria welcomed the deployment of as many as 3,000 army reservists but voiced disappointment that they weren't consulted ahead of the decision.
A 50-second advert about the deployment by Morrison's Liberal Party was widely criticized for appearing to opportunistically politicize the crisis. It's another misstep by Morrison, who was lambasted for taking an unannounced pre-Christmas vacation to Hawaii amid the crisis, and was filmed turning his back on a pregnant woman appealing for more resources as he toured a bushfire-ravaged community.
The fires that have blackened almost 12.3 million acres in New South Wales state alone have prompted millions of dollars of donations and support from international celebrities, sports stars, and the British Royal Family.
New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe, who is in Australia to protect his properties, had a statement read by Jennifer Aniston when he won an award at the Golden Globes.
"Make no mistake, the tragedy in Australia is climate change-based," his statement said. "We need to act based on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future."
The resource-rich state of Western Australia will be cut off by road from the rest of the nation on Monday as fires and flood force the closure of main access routes, the West Australian newspaper reported. As well as the blazes that have affected major roads, the only highway out of Broome was to close later Monday as Tropical Cyclone Blake bore down on the northwest coast.