Australia‘s prime minister has apologised for going on holiday during devastating, historic bush fires which have recently killed two firefighters and sparked mass protests across the country.
Scott Morrison cut short his family holiday in Hawaii after two volunteer firefighters, Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, died fighting blazes in Sydney when a tree fell and caused a vehicle they were travelling in to roll off the road.
The two men, both fathers to 19-month-old children, died at the scene while three other firefighters were injured and taken to hospital. New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian said the injured firefighters were in a stable condition.
It comes as Australia has seen particularly fierce wildfires which have caused unprecedented air pollution in Sydney, devastated wildlife and sparked widespread public anger, with protests around the country in reaction to the crisis.
This was fuelled this week by Mr Morrison going on leave, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies. However, Mr Morrison has promised to cut short his family holiday and return to Sydney on Saturday.
He said: “I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time.
“I have been receiving regular updates on the bushfires disaster as well as the status of the search for and treatment of the victims of the White Island tragedy.”
Mr Morrison said the two firefighters were “bravely defending their communities with an unmatched spirit and a dedication that will forever set them apart among our most courageous Australians”.
He added: “Their sacrifice and service saving lives and saving properties will be forever remembered. I wish those injured all the best in their recovery.”
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons spent the night consoling families of the victims.
He said: “To not be coming home after their shift is a tremendous grief and I applaud the families and the loved ones for their remarkable comprehension of what’s been unfolding.”
The Rural Fire Service said up to 40 houses could be destroyed south-west of Sydney.
Cooler conditions provided desperately needed relief on Friday, but scorching temperatures are forecast at the weekend with Sydney’s western suburbs tipped to reach 45C.
New South Wales declared a seven-day state of emergency on Thursday as around 2,000 firefighters battle 100 wildfires across the state.
Around 7.4 million acres of land has burnt nationwide during a torrid past few months, with six people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.
The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.
The Bureau of Meteorology said Wednesday was the hottest day on record in Australia with an average of 41.9C, beating the landmark set a day earlier by one degree.
Additional reporting by agencies