Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday established a National Bushfire Recovery Agency to co-ordinate recovery efforts ranging from rebuilding infrastructure to providing mental health support even as authorities struggled to tackle the raging bushfire crisis which has so far claimed the lives of 24 people.
The agency, headed by former federal police chief Andrew Colvin, will help bushfire affected communities recover, media reports said. Morrison, who is facing widespread criticism in Australia for his handling of the crisis, said: "This organisation will be stood up for at least two years.
"I have no doubt they will have a long list of recovery tasks that (the states) will be performing … rebuilding bridges, roads and other critical infrastructure and we will work hand in glove".
The agency will be modelling its operations closely on the successful response provided to the North Queensland floods, he said.
"That agency will be drawing on a series of support measures that includes mental health. It's important we are addressing the mental health needs as well as the many other health needs that will need to be addressed," Morrison said.
On Saturday, he called up 3,000 military reserve troops to combat the bushfires, the first time that reservists were called up in such a large number "in the living memory". Morrison was criticised for taking a family vacation in Hawaii at the start of the wildfire crisis, with many people complaining about the lack of readiness in utilisation of resources. Last week, he was heckled when he visited a township in New South Wales where houses have been destroyed and one of them belonged to one of the three volunteer firefighters who have died in the crisis.
Fresh warnings were issued to hundreds of people sheltering in New South Wales' coastal town of Eden with authorities urging them to vacate the area immediately. Australian authorities continued to struggle with the ongoing bushfire crisis across several states including Victoria, South Australia and Queensland. According to media reports, dozens of people had sought shelter on Eden's wharf, but police said that area was no longer safe.
The police officers warning tourists and those not able to defend their homes to leave, said: "We cannot guarantee your safety at present under the conditions that we have now here at the Eden Wharf". New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said reports of property losses "likely to be numbering in the hundreds" as a result of Saturday's fire activity. Morrison, in a press conference in the Parliament house on Saturday, said it was a very difficult day for Australia confirming 23 deaths for the fire season this year. One more person died trying to save a friend's home on Sunday.
"I want to start by extending my sincere condolences and sympathies once again to all of those Australians and families who've lost loved ones during the course of these devastating bushfires. Twenty-three confirmed deaths to date and we are facing another extremely difficult next 24 hours," the Prime Minister said.
The bushfire crisis has taken a very heavy toll with more than 1,500 homes already lost throughout the course of this fire season, which has been running since September, Morrison said.
"I also want to acknowledge the outstanding work that is being done by all of those who've been turning out and responding to these natural disasters, not just in the states currently impacted most dreadfully, in New South Wales and Victoria today, but also up in Queensland, across in Western Australia, down in Tasmania, even today South Australia. This has been touching the entire country," he said.
In Victoria, warnings on several fires were downgraded but there were still four emergency level warnings for fires and two evacuation warnings in place. Nearly 40 fires, over 923,000 hectares have been burned across Victoria and 110 homes have been confirmed lost, 220 outbuildings destroyed. Meanwhile, expected rainfall and cooler weather conditions on Sunday in the state including Gippsland region were said to bring no relief to the crisis.
Emergency services minister Lisa Neville said rainfall of 200 mm over a few days would be needed to directly impact the flames, and that is "not on the horizon". Emergency Management Commission Andrew Crisp said the rain could in fact make it harder to access remote areas for back burning or other assistance. In NSW, 18 people lost their lives in 150 bushfires burning, 64 un-contained across the state. More than 3.6 million hectares have been burned with over 1300 homes destroyed.
In Victoria, two people are confirmed dead while in South Australia three people are confirmed dead with 15 bushfires burning. No loss of life has been reported from Western Australia where 30 bushfires are burning. Queensland has 30 bushfires while Tasmania 23 bushfires burning. Over 3,000 firefighters are on the frontline, with 31 specialist strike teams in place across NSW.
Australia's military has been assisting with aerial reconnaissance, mapping, search and rescue, logistics and aerial support for months. Prime Minister Morrison has cancelled his planned first visit to India from January 13 due to the catastrophic bushfire crisis.