Australia fires: Almost 2,000 homes destroyed in marathon crisis

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Media caption,

Australia fires: "Nothing left" for animals that survive

Almost 2,000 houses have been destroyed in Australia's months-long bushfire crisis, officials say, as crews prepare frantically for worsening conditions.

After ferocious conditions last week, firefighters are using milder weather to boost containment lines around fires engulfing south-eastern Australia.

Temperatures are likely to soar again on Friday, prompting fears that two fires could form a new "mega blaze".

At least 25 people and millions of animals have died since September.

Australia is fighting an unprecedented bushfire season, fuelled by record temperatures and widespread drought.

On Tuesday, New South Wales (NSW) officials said fires there had claimed 1,588 homes and damaged 653 more.

About 200 homes have been destroyed in neighbouring Victoria, adding to more than 100 lost in other states.

The Insurance Council of Australia estimated the damage bill had reached A$700m (£370m; $485m), but said it expected the cost to rise significantly.

'It was hard to see where we were winning'

Jonathan Head, BBC News, Wingello in New South Wales

Image caption,
'The trees are blackened and scorched'

Blue smoke still lingers over the town of Wingello, even after cooler weather and a little rain.

The trees and ground along the road are blackened and scorched. On the corner of Forest Road, May King's house has gone; only a steel chair frame still recognisable in the ashes.

But the people of Wingello are talking about a miracle here. Only 12 houses were destroyed; dozens more were saved.

At the fire station Fire Captain Mark Wilson is still stunned and emotional over what his teams managed to do.

The fire roared in on Saturday night, turning the sky purple, then a hellish red.

"We were just frantically going around trying to hit every fire that came up", says Mark. "It was really hard to see where we were winning."

Fire crews from other towns came to help defend Wingello, a return favour for the help the Wingello crew gave in earlier fires last month.

Today some of the 400 residents were back clearing up, looking around, just amazed, they say, that the town is still there.

What's the current fire threat?

Rain has fallen in NSW and Victoria and temperatures have dropped - but officials have warned that blazes will "take off" again.

They fear large blazes in both states could merge, creating unpredictable fire fronts.

In Western Australia, the season's first tropical cyclone has brought strong winds since Monday night - and also heavy rain crucial in helping to fight the bush fires.

The cyclone was also welcomed on the other side of the country.

"Hopefully (it is) a signal that we may see monsoon activity which will disrupt the dominant hot air mass," said NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

Media caption,

BBC Weather's Sue Powell

The NSW Rural Fire Service said it had more than 2,600 people deployed on Tuesday to bolster containment lines between fires and populated areas.

Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp has warned people to expect "a changing, dynamic situation" later in the week.

An emotional funeral

Tuesday also saw the funeral of a firefighter who died on 19 December in an accident on the way to a major blaze near Sydney.

Andrew O'Dwyer was killed alongside his colleague Harvey Keaton when their fire truck hit a fallen tree.

Dozens of fellow firefighters formed a guard of honour outside a church in the New South Wales capital.

Mr O'Dwyer was posthumously given the Commissioner's Commendation for extraordinary service and bravery, the highest award that can be given to NSW firefighters.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Mr O'Dwyer's daughter was wearing her father's helmet during the ceremony

Is the government doing enough?

On Monday, after warning the crisis might go on for months, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said A$2bn ($1.4bn; £1.1bn) would be committed to recovery over the next two years.

He announced the creation of a recovery agency to help those who have lost homes and businesses in the fires.

The government has also pledged some compensation for volunteers who take leave to fight fires, and more money for waterbombing aircraft.

But the Australian prime minister has faced fierce criticism for his response - including for taking a holiday to Hawaii during the crisis. Critics have also accused him of underplaying the role of climate change.

Media caption,

Australia's capital Canberra is engulfed in smoke

How are celebrities helping?

A number of celebrities have also donated money to support firefighting efforts in recent days - among them Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who on Tuesday said he donated $1m,.

Singer Elton John closed a concert in Sydney on Tuesday by announcing he too would donate $1m for the recovery efforts.

Other celebrities who donated money include US singer Pink, and Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman, who pledged $500,000 each.

On Monday, pop star Kylie Minogue tweeted her family had "donated $500,000 towards the immediate firefighting efforts and the ongoing support which will be required".

Image source, BBC

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