As wildfires rage, Australian PM apologizes for family vacation and defends climate policies

The devastation has put pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has received criticism for going on a family vacation in Hawaii during the wildfire crisis.
Image: Firefighters Continue To Battle Bushfires As Catastrophic Fire Danger Warning Is Issued In NSW
Firemen prepare as a bushfire approaches homes on the outskirts of the town of Bargo on December 21, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.David Gray / Getty Images

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By Associated Press

SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologized Sunday for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as deadly bushfires raged across several states, destroying homes and claiming the lives of two volunteer firefighters.

Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and adult children amid public anger at his absence during a national crisis, and arrived home Saturday night. He spoke to reporters Sunday morning while visiting the headquarters of the Rural Fire Service in Sydney.

"If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions," Morrison said.

“I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it.”

"But as prime minister, you have other responsibilities, and I accept that and I accept the criticism," he added.

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Morrison said this was not a time for political point-scoring, but a "time to be kind to each other."

He said that while he is not a trained firefighter, “I'm comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here just simply so I can be here, alongside them, as they are going through this terrible time.”

Morrison also answered critics who say his government has not done enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in the spate of fires burning across the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

He said there were also "many other factors" responsible for the unprecedented number of fires during a record-breaking heat wave.

"There is no argument ... about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world," he said. "But I'm sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event — it's not a credible suggestion to make that link."

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fizsimmons described Saturday as an "awful day" for firefighters as strong southerly winds fanned more than 100 fires in New South Wales alone.

The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. Around 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 800 homes destroyed.

Thirty firefighters from Canada and nine from the United States were among fresh crews set to join the battle against the fires on Sunday.

The devastation has reignited debate on whether Morrison’s conservative government has taken enough action on climate change.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.