Australian bushfires ease, promise reprieve to build defences

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By John Mair and Lidia Kelly

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Bushfire conditions eased in Australia on Saturday after a gruelling night for firefighters, with authorities saying they expect at least a week of milder weather in which to step up defences against the huge blazes still burning.

Cooler temperatures and rainfall had eased conditions after Friday's strong southerly wind change that packed gusts of more than 100 kph (60 mph), whipping some fires on the east coast up to the emergency warning level.

The much needed respite was an opportunity to consolidate and try and get the upper hand over the fires, said Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service.

"It would appear that we have got at least a week," Fitzsimmons told a media briefing. "It will probably be the best seven days we have had without a rise of very dangerous fire ratings."

New South Wales police said in a statement that areas not affected by the bushfires of the South Coast, a popular holiday destination, are in a position to reopen for business, although national parks remain close until Feb. 1.

Officials have been urging foreign tourists to continue visiting Australia, which depends on income from tourism as the industry accounts for 3.1% of the country's gross domestic product.

South Australian fire officials said the situation on Kangaroo Island has stabilised after more than 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) had burnt in blazes described as "hell on earth", by the island's mayor, Michael Pengill, on Twitter.

Since October, 27 people have been killed in Australia and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres), an area roughly the size of South Korea.

The Sydney Opera House was expected to illuminate its sails on Saturday evening with a display of images from the last three months of the fire crisis, honouring those affected and those fighting the flames.

Despite Saturday's respite, authorities were clear, however, that the risk was far from over.

"It is great to have some respite now, so we can reset and refocus in terms of our operational activities and what we can do to support community, but we will have more hot weather," Andrew Crisp, Victoria's emergency management commissioner, told reporters.

Here are key events in the crisis:

* Across New South Wales, nearly 140 fires were stillburning by Saturday afternoon, 59 of them not contained, butnone at emergency level. About 2,000 homes have been destroyedin the state. * One New South Wales person was taken to hospital in Sydneyon Friday with serious burns suffered while defending aproperty. * One fire was still burning at emergency level in Victoriaon Saturday from a total of about 20 burning there. * A number of fires burning in the Snowy Mountains region inNew South Wales and across into Victoria have merged across morethan 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land. They do notpose a threat, authorities say, despite being in an area hard toreach. * Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville urgedcommunities affected by the fires to use the expected milderweather conditions to check on each other. * Thousands of Australians took to the streets on Friday toprotest against government inaction on climate change, and weresupported by protesters in London. * Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at aboutA$5 billion ($3.4 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires inVictoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. Itforecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product. * Australia's alpine resorts have dusted off wintersnowmaking machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes. * The Insurance Council of Australia increased to more thanA$900 million its estimate of damage claims from the fires, andthey are expected to jump further. * Health officials in New South Wales urged extraprecautions to avoid heat-related illnesses. * Australia's wildfires have dwarfed other recentcatastrophic blazes, with its burnt terrain more than twice theextent of that ravaged by 2019 fires in Brazil, California andIndonesia combined. * Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged A$2 billion($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire RecoveryAgency. * About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canadaare helping, with another 140 expected in coming weeks. * The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxideand produced harmful pollutants, the European Union's Copernicusmonitoring programme said. * Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities inSouth America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N.'sWorld Meteorological Organization said.

(Reporting by John Mair and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Clarence Fernandez & Shri Navaratnam)

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