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Calmer Weather Brings Reprieve in Australia Wildfire Crisis

Matthew Burgess

(Bloomberg) -- Australian firefighters are taking advantage of the best weather conditions since the wildfires began to beef up containment lines following Friday’s strong winds and scorching temperatures that led two massive blazes to merge overnight.

Victoria state will end its state of disaster at midnight as conditions ease. Authorities will reduce as much of the tinder dry vegetation as possible across a fire-front that stretches thousands of kilometers as temperatures cool, winds drop and light rain falls over the next week, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

The reprieve was “an opportunity for firefighters and affected communities to consolidate and allow us to try and get the upper hand on the fires,” Fitzsimmons told reporters Saturday in Sydney.

Still, it’s hoped more fires aren’t sparked from lighting strikes as much of the light rain seen so far is evaporating before it hits the ground, he said.

Authorities have been battling a months-long wildfire crisis that’s claimed at least 26 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes, charred more than 25 million acres and killed an estimated 1 billion native animals from koalas to kangaroos. The disaster has shocked Australians and spurred criticism at home and abroad of the government, which has downplayed links to global warming and rejected demands to take stronger steps to curb emissions.

While there was no loss of life or significant property damage following searing temperatures and strong winds Friday, one man was air lifted to hospital with serious burns after defending his home near the Snowy Mountains. Four firefighters were treated for heat stress and minor burns as they battled a blaze in remote farmland about 100 kilometers south of the capital Canberra.

Economically, the near-term cost is mounting as toxic smoke that shrouded Canberra shuttered businesses and government departments and forced national carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. to cancel flights.

More than 11,000 insurance claims totaling A$995 million ($687 million) will inevitably climb, and the dairy industry is still counting the cost of scorched land and livestock. The total damage bill to date is likely around A$5 billion, Westpac Banking Corp. said.

The crisis shows no sign of ending, with January and February typically the nation’s worst wildfire periods as temperatures soar in the southern hemisphere summer. Almost half of the 147 bush and grass fires burning across the state of New South Wales aren’t contained, while Victoria state is battling 20 blazes.

“We’ve got a long way to go, we have got a lot more hot weather,” Andrew Crisp, Victoria state’s emergency management commissioner said. “We will have more fires in other parts of the state.”

(Updates with injuries in sixth paragraph, Westpac damage assessment in eighth.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Burgess in Melbourne at mburgess46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net, Linus Chua, Virginia Van Natta

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