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.
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 fast-moving fires scorched trees, cars, outbuildings and everything else in its path, leaving residents scrambling to find shelter.
"When it came, it came in like three or four minutes, just a big plume of black smoke and then ember fallout," recalled Steve Harrison, a resident of the village of Balmoral. In an interview with ABC, Harrison described how he frantically tried to turn on the sprinklers on buildings in his property on Saturday but within minutes he found himself trapped, unable to escape.
"My garden was already on fire here. And the driveway was on fire, and the road was on fire. So I realized I couldn't evacuate," Harrison said. He said he had to turn to his plan B: Hiding in a small kiln, just the size of a coffin, that he had built the day before. It was just big enough for him to crawl inside, he said.
"I hid in there for half an hour while the firestorm went over," he said.
The village of Balmoral, southwest of Sydney, has been all but wiped out by the Green Wattle Creek firestorm that roared through the area twice in three days.
Dozens of homes have been lost since Thursday in massive wildfires, including the Gospers Mountain blaze, which covered more than 460,000 hectares (1.1 million acres).
Thirty firefighters from Canada and nine from the United States were among fresh crews set to join the battle against the fires on Sunday.
Australia's most populous state was paralyzed by "catastrophic" fire conditions Saturday amid souring temperatures, while one person died as wildfires also ravaged the country's southeast.
"Catastrophic fire conditions are as bad as it gets," New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters. "Given we have a landscape with so much active fire burning, you have a recipe for very serious concern and a very dangerous day."
Areas in western Sydney were forecast to hit 47 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit). A cooling change was expected to move through New South Wales late Saturday although authorities warned that strong winds could push fires in dangerous new directions.
New South Wales is in a seven-day state of emergency as around 2,000 firefighters battle 100 wildfires.
Two firefighters died Thursday battling blazes southwest of Sydney. Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, were in a truck convoy southwest of Sydney when a tree fell and caused the vehicle to roll off the road.
Authorities confirmed Saturday one person died and 15 homes were destroyed in South Australia as a wildfire ravaged the Adelaide Hills on Friday, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the state capital of Adelaide. Another person was critically injured after fighting to save his home from the fires.
It follows the death of a 24-year-old man in a road crash in South Australia on Friday, which sparked a fire in the area of the Murraylands.
Authorities said 23 firefighters and several police have also suffered injuries, as more than 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres) burnt across South Australia.
"It is going to be a real scene of devastation, especially for those people in the Adelaide Hills who have been most affected," South Australia Premier Steven Marshall said.
"We know that in addition to the buildings and vehicles lost there are very significant losses in terms of livestock, animals, crops, vineyards."
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 burnt nationwide during a torrid past few months, with nine people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.
The devastation has put pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has copped criticism for going on a family holiday in Hawaii during the wildfires crisis. He apologized on Friday for "any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time".
Morrison said he would cut short his vacation and was expected to return to Sydney on Saturday, where he is due to visit the Rural Fire Service headquarters.
Debate has reignited 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.
Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency executive director, believed Australia had missed opportunities to mitigate the impact of coal.
"I find the Australian energy debate far too emotional, far too nervous and far too hot. It is hotter than the climate change itself," he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Protesters on Thursday camped outside Morrison's Sydney residence demanding urgent action on climate change.
Morrison, who critics have deemed a climate change skeptic, conceded earlier this month that "climate change along with many other factors" contributed to the wildfires.
The desalination plant in Sydney, Australia, which creates 250 million litres of vital drinking water per day, has an unexpected benefit of also attracting close to four times as many fish to the area, researchers revealed on Thursday.
The desalination plant in Sydney is one of the largest in the world, and in times of reduced rainfall, it supplies roughly 15 percent of the Sydney's drinking water.
Now, a seven-year study by Southern Cross University (SCU) and the University of New South Wales has shown that in the areas where the plant discharges it's excess salt -- roughly 300 metres offshore -- fish numbers have exploded by 279 percent.
"At the start of this project, we thought the hypersaline brine would negatively impact fish life," lead researcher, Professor Brendan Kelaher from SCU said.
"We were both surprised and impressed at the clear positive effect on the abundance of fish, as well as the numbers of fish species."
Kelaher said that the increase is good news for fishermen as well as the environment, with a 133 percent increase in species targeted by commercial operations and recreational anglers.
The research is important because in the future, desalination plants could play a large role in water security, not just in Australia but around the world.
"With growing populations and climate uncertainty, water security has become a global concern. Desalination is one way to help shore up water supplies in many parts of the world," Kelaher said.
The plant uses osmosis to convert salty seawater into safe and clean drinking water, a process which results in a massive amount of hypersaline brine.
Initially the researchers believed that the hyper-salty water emitted by the plant would reduce fish numbers -- the reason why it has had the opposite effect is unclear.
"We think they might be responding to turbulence created by dynamic mixing associated with the high-pressure release of the brine. However, more research is needed," Kelaher said.
Central Australia has been warned to prepare for potentially record-breaking temperatures.
With much of Australia set to experience sweltering heat in the lead-up to Christmas on December 25, the Bureau of Meteorology on Wednesday warned that temperature records could tumble in the nation's arid center, which is otherwise known as the Outback.
"We could see temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius (C) and possibly a new record in Alice Springs," senior forecaster Angeline Prasad told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"Alice Springs's record temperature is currently 45.6C.
"Temperatures in Alice Springs over the next week are forecast for 44C, 44C, 41C, 42C, 43C, 43C and 45C," she said.
A similar warning has been issued for South Australia where soaring temperatures have increased pressure on the hospital system.
According to research published by Adelaide University on Wednesday, high-intensity heatwaves result in a 15 percent increase in ambulance callouts in the state.
"As silent killers, heatwaves kill more people than any other natural disasters," lead author Peng Bi told News Corp Australia.
Prasad said that a number of temperature records have already been broken in the Northern Territory with Darwin having recorded its longest streak of days of 35C or more with 11.
Darwin has also broken its record for the most number of days exceeding 35C in a single year with 35 so far in 2019.
Prasad said that relief from the heat was unlikely before Christmas.
"This Christmas we are looking at a hot Christmas," she said.
"We are looking at very hot days and the nights will be very warm," she added.
The Australian government has launched a review of its foreign aid priorities.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Alex Hawke, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, announced that Dennis Richardson, former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), will lead a review of international development policy priorities.
They said the new policy would "guide our support for a secure, stable, prosperous and resilient Indo-Pacific."
Australia's aid budget has been cut by 27 percent to four billion Australian dollars (2.73 billion U.S. dollars) since the Coalition was elected to govern in 2013.
"The new policy will reflect Australian values, including our commitment to human dignity, gender equality and inclusive development, and our commitment to poverty reduction and helping those impacted by natural and man-made disasters," Payne said.
Submissions to the inquiry began on Tuesday.
According to an analysis by the Lowy Institute, a leading think tank, Australia's foreign aid budget will be among the lowest of the 32 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by 2020-21.