AUSTRALIA – PERTH, Australia — Australia’s embattled prime minister defended his government’s climate policy on Monday, as authorities warned that the wildfires ravaging the country’s most populous state could fester for months.
Around 200 wildfires were burning in four states, with New South Wales accounting for more than half of them, including 60 fires not contained.
The disaster has led to renewed criticism that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government has not taken enough action on climate change.
Morrison rejected calls to downsize Australia’s lucrative coal industry. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.
“I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” he told Channel Seven.
Morrison made the rounds on several Australian television networks Monday morning in the aftermath of his much criticized family vacation to Hawaii during the wildfire crisis.
He eventually cut short his vacation and returned to Sydney over the weekend before visiting evacuation and emergency control centers and the families of two firefighters killed battling blazes last Thursday southwest of Sydney.
“We all make decisions. You do as a parent, I do as a parent. We’ll seek to balance our work life responsibilities and we all try to get that right,” Morrison told Channel Seven.
Video posted on Facebook by firefighters in South Australia state and shared with The Associated Press shows a firefighter giving water to a thirsty koala Sunday as fires raged in Cudlee Creek, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Adelaide, the state capital.
More than 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land has burned nationwide during a torrid past few months, with nine people killed and more than 950 homes destroyed. About 850 homes have burned in New South Wales, which last week was paralyzed by a seven-day state of emergency amid catastrophic conditions.
There is expected to be some desperately needed relief this week for New South Wales, with cooler conditions forecast. The state’s Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, however, painted a bleak long-term picture.
“We’ve got to keep in mind that we’re not expecting any rainfall to make any meaningful difference to these fires until January or February,” he said. “That’s still a way to go. We’re still talking four to six weeks at best before we start to see a meaningful reprieve in the weather.”
Morrison’s coalition government won a surprise third term in May. Among its pledges was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 — a modest figure compared to the center-left opposition’s pledge of 45%.
Morrison insisted Australia would meet its emission targets.
“I’m going to maintain the course of responsible management, responsibly addressing the changes of climate change and responsibly ensuring that we can grow our economy in what is a very tough climate at the moment,” he said.
Later on Monday, Morrison took an aerial tour of the bushland where the Gospers Mountain megafire destroyed dozens of homes and around 484,000 hectares (1.19 million acres) northwest of Sydney.
Morrison said a scheduled meeting in March of state and federal leaders, where the wildfire crisis is expected to be a major talking point, would not be moved forward. “What will happen after these fires is we’ll plan to do it even better next time,” he told reporters. “There are already options and proposals that are being worked on now for us to consider.”
The opposition Labor party has pressed Morrison to consider compensation for volunteer firefighters.
“They (fire commissioners and chiefs) are very comfortable with the arrangements we have,” Morrison said. “What is particularly taxing during this fire season is the length and that’s why I’m taking advice from fire commissioners on what is best needed to continue to support that important volunteer force.”
Areas south of Sydney remain worst affected, with an emergency warning currently in place for Shoalhaven, while a fire at Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains, a popular tourist destination, is currently at the watch and act level.