By Byron Kaye and Paulina Duran
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged foreign tourists not to be deterred by deadly wildfires that have razed large swathes and sent smoke as far as South America, even as authorities fretted about renewed dangers ahead.
Morrison made the plea on Wednesday as he visited Kangaroo Island, a usually wildlife-rich tourist attraction off the south coast hit twice in recent weeks by blazes.
“Australia is open, Australia is still a wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays,” Morrison told reporters after meeting tourism operators and farmers.
“Even here on Kangaroo Island, where a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two thirds of it is open and ready for business,” he said. “It’s important to keep the local economies vibrant at these times.”
Tourism accounts for 3.1 % of Gross Domestic Product and last summer season Australia attracted 2.71 million holidaymakers. But this year, hotel occupancy has dropped and some normally crowded resorts are ghost towns due to the crisis.
Officials confirmed another firefighter died in a vehicle crash last Friday while on duty, bringing the death toll to 26.
In Victoria state, authorities urged people in fire-risk areas to consider evacuating, ahead of a temperature spike on Friday that could fan fires.
GRAPHIC: A devastated east coast – https://graphics.reuters.com/AUSTRALIA-BUSHFIRES-MAP/0100B4TW2NK/index.html
“These fires remain dangerous, they remain dynamic, remain volatile, and the conditions we are going to see can give significant life to these fires,” Victoria Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.
Thousands of people are homeless due to fires that have scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land – an area the size of South Korea.
Many towns were without power and telecommunications and some were running low on drinking water supplies. Smoke has blanketed cities including Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
The bushfires follow a three-year drought that experts link to climate change and that has left bushland tinder-dry.
GRAPHIC: Bushfires in New South Wales raise air pollution levels – https://graphics.reuters.com/AUSTRALIA-BUSHFIRES/0100B4RE2HB/nsw-air-pollution.jpg
Following are latest events in the crisis:
* Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an A$11 million ($7.56 million) relief package while visiting Kangaroo Island.
* The three major cities in Australia’s southeast, Sydney, Melbourne and the capital Canberra, were blanketed in thick smoke.
* Sixty-seven firefighters from the United States and Canada landed in Australia, joining 40 compatriots already on the ground. Australian authorities have requested another 140 personnel, who are expected in the next two weeks.
* A university of Sydney ecologist doubled his estimate of animals killed or injured in fires to 1 billion.
* Community leaders asked people to donate money instead of food and clothing because small communities are being overwhelmed by goods they do not need. Authorities also warned about online donation scams.
* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affected cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said.
* The fires have already emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring program said.
* Victoria Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville asked activists to “reconsider” a planned protest on Friday, suggesting it would distract police from fire zones.
* The group, Uni Students for Climate Justice, was undeterred, saying tens of thousands wanted to protest. “Cops are not worried about resources, they are worried about people standing up against the government’s inaction. The rallies on Friday are going ahead,” it said on Facebook.
* Moody’s Analytics said the cost of fires could easily surpass the deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares of land at an estimated toll of A$4.4 billion.
* There are 129 fires ablaze across New South Wales state, with around 65 uncontained. All the fires were at “advice” level, the lowest alert. Victoria had 40 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts.
* Prime Minister Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.37 billion) to a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
* Britain’s Prince Charles joined a list of global figures sending support, referring to the “appalling horror unfolding in Australia” in a video.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Paulina Duran; Additional reporting by Swati Pandey and Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Andrew Cawthorne)