The prime minister of Australia, feeling the political pressure from devastating bushfires that have swept across a wide swath of his nation for months, unveiled a two-year plan Sunday aimed at recovering from the historic blazes.
“The scale of the disaster is enormous,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in unveiling plans for the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. “It is a reminder of the terrible threat that nature provides in this country.”
Fire season typically begins in December in Australia, but some of the fires have been burning since September. The toll has been high: At least 24 people killed and 2,000 homes destroyed. Authorities in New South Wales, a focal point for the carnage, estimated that 500 million birds, reptiles and other animals have died.
Sunday did bring a brief respite with calmer winds and a break in the heat. But authorities warn the fires will continue for months.
New South Wales, where Sydney is located, declared a seven-day state of emergency starting Friday and issued an “extreme” fire warning, second on the danger scale only to “catastrophic.”
New South Wales firefighters were combating 136 fires on Sunday, about half of them uncontained. Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said fire expansion exceeded “worst-case scenario” predictions in recent days.
It’s summer in Australia, and 2019 was the hottest year on record for the nation of 25 million people. The latest blast of heat and strong winds further fueled blazes already well fed by drought-stricken vegetation.
Navy ships have rescued hundreds of people from beaches, and tens of thousands were urged to flee. The U.S. Embassy warned tourists to leave because of the fire danger.
Morrison has drawn unrelenting criticism for being slow to react to the crisis, even vacationing while his country burned. Now he has ordered 3,000 reservists to help battle the fires and committed millions of dollars to lease firefighting aircraft from overseas.
Even that drew criticism, however, after Fitzsimmons said he learned of the commitments from media reports rather than from Morrison.
The prime minister said he is focused on responding to the crisis, not his critics.
“There has been a lot of blame being thrown around,” Morrison said. “Blame doesn’t help anybody at this time, and overanalysis of these things is not a productive exercise.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Australia fires: Blazes burn nation, put pressure on PM Scott Morrison