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Australian firefighters get reprieve after tough night

Leading Seaman Aircrewman Brendan Menz keeps watch as HMAS Choules' MRH-90 Maritime Support Helicopter lands in a burnt out field in southern New South Wales, Australia, January 9, 2020. 9, Cameron/Australian Department of Defence

Bushfire conditions on Australia‘s east coast eased on Saturday after a tough night for firefighters, and authorities said they expect to have at least a week of milder weather where they can improve defences against the huge blazes still burning.

A strong southerly wind change on Friday night, with gusts of more than 100 kph (60 mph) recorded, whipped a number of fires up to the emergency warning level, but by Saturday morning cooler temperatures and rainfall had eased conditions.

“A lot of relief for a lot of communities really suffering at this time, but the next few days are (also) looking pretty good,” Jonathan How from the Bureau of Meteorology told ABC News television. “Much cooler as well.”

New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told a media briefing the respite was an opportunity to consolidate and try and get the upper hand on the fires.

“It would appear that we have got at least a week. It will probably be the best seven days we have had without a rise of very dangerous fire ratings,” Fitzsimmons said.

Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville urged communities affected by the fires to use the expected milder weather conditions to check on each other.

“This will leave significant trauma for people to deal with,” Neville said at a separate media briefing. “The next few weeks is going to be really important that we look out for each other.”

Since October, 27 people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area roughly the size of South Korea.

Australian authorities were clear that the risk was far from over.

“The longer-term forecast, or the outlook rather than a forecast, is for warmer and drier, so we know we have a long way to go,” Victoria’s emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp told a media briefing.

“It is great to have some respite now so we can reset and refocus in terms of our operational activities and what we can do to support community, but we will have more hot weather.”

Here are key events in the crisis:

* Across NSW, nearly 150 fires were still burning as of Saturday morning, more than 60 of which were not contained, but none were at emergency level. Some 2,000 homes have been destroyed so far in the fire-affected areas of the state.

* One NSW person suffered serious burns defending a property and was taken to a Sydney hospital on Friday night.

* One fire was still burning at emergency level in Victoria on Saturday from a total of about 20 fires burning in the state.

* A number of fires burning in the Snowy Mountains region in NSW and across into Victoria have merged. The fires that combined have more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land in total. Although the merged fires are burning in a difficult area to get to, authorities said they do not pose an immediate threat.

* Thousands of Australians took to the streets on Friday to protest against government inaction on climate change, and were supported by protesters in London.

* Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.

* Australia‘s alpine resorts have dusted off winter snowmaking machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes as fires threaten the Snowy Mountains region.

* The Insurance Council of Australia increased its estimate of damages claims from the fires to more than A$900 million, with claims expected to jump further.

* Health officials in New South Wales urged extra precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses.

* Australia‘s wildfires have dwarfed other recent catastrophic blazes, with its burnt terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged by 2019 fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

* Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping, with another 140 expected in coming weeks.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring programme said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said.

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