Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cancelled his family holiday and will be returning to Sydney as soon as possible after the deaths of two firefighters.
The two volunteers with the NSW Rural Fire Service were killed on the front line during a horrific day of bushfires whipped up by extreme temperatures across the country.
They had been battling a fierce blaze that ripped through villages southwest of Sydney and were driving a truck in convoy during firefighting operations near the town of Buxton late Thursday when their vehicle hit a tree and rolled off the road.
The driver and front passenger were killed and three other firefighters were injured, according to police.
“The Service’s thoughts are with all the firefighters’ family, friends and fellow brigade members,” the RFS said in a statement early on Friday.
“This is an absolutely devastating event in what has already been an incredibly difficult day and fire season.”
Mr Morrison has been criticised for his absence during the bushfires and was finally been located in Hawaii enjoying “a few bevvies”.
“Over the course of the past week I have been taking leave with my family. Our leave was brought forward due to the need to cancel our scheduled leave in January because of our official government visit to India and Japan at the invitation of PMs Modi and Abe,” Mr Morrison said in a statement.
“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time.
“I have been receiving regular updates on the bushfires disaster as well as the status of the search for and treatment of the victims of the White Island tragedy. The Commonwealth’s responsibilities have been well managed by the Acting Prime Minister, Minister Littleproud and Minister Payne.”
“As noted, given the most recent tragic events, I will be returning to Sydney as soon as can be arranged.”
The fatal accident occurred at the end of an exhausting day for firefighters in which it’s feared some 40 homes could have been lost in Buxton, Balmoral, Bargo and surrounds, as the Green Wattle Creek blaze tore through the Wollondilly Shire on Thursday.
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 19, 2019
But it’s not over yet for weary firefighters who are bracing for more extreme temperatures over coming days in the lead up to Christmas.
Australia’s average maximum temperature record could be broken again as the heatwave intensifies, leaving southern and central Australia with temperatures up to 16C above average by Friday.
The thermometer is tipped to spike well into the 40s across most of the nation on Friday – possibly breaking the record set on Wednesday.
Temperatures in some parts of South Australia are expected to nudge a dangerous 50C, with Adelaide forecast to hit 46C making it the city’s hottest ever December day.
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The state is bracing for a combination of extremely high temperatures, rising winds and potentially thousands of lightning strikes.
Parts of Tasmania are also set to reach temperatures about 16C above the state average on Friday as the extreme heat gripping mainland Australia spreads south.
Melbourne is forecast to hit 44C on Friday. The last time it climbed that high in December was 1876.
The 39.3C that sweltered through Canberra on Thursday to set the capital’s hottest December day might come a close second if the capital reaches the 41C forecast on Friday.
Based on preliminary analysis, yesterday, Australia recorded its hottest day on record. The nationally-averaged maximum daytime temp was 41.9 °C exceeding the record set on Tuesday, 40.9 ºC. You can view the top ten highest daily maximum temps here: https://t.co/Cdqm9vD1cI pic.twitter.com/DRDK9LAvrg
— Bureau of Meteorology, Australia (@BOM_au) December 19, 2019
Brisbane and Darwin will begin a relatively milder weekend with maximums in the mid 30s.
Perth will hope to have a break from the bushfires with a partly cloudy forecast of 27C.
Sydney will have a break from intense heat and smoke with temperatures forecast to stay in the low 20s.
The damage assessment from Thursday’s extreme blaze at Green Wattle Creek will be assessed Friday morning, with fears that about 40 homes may have gone up in flames.
Crews faced winds over 100km/h and 60-metre-high flame fronts. The fire was so fierce it sucked the oxygen out of the air.
The Green Wattle Creek blaze remained at emergency warning level early on Friday, along with the huge Gospers Mountain blaze northwest of Sydney.
The neighbouring Kerry Ridge blaze and a fire on the NSW South Coast at Currowan were downgraded to a “watch and act” alert.
The NSW RFS officially says 20 homes may have been lost but RFS deputy commissioner Rob Rogers acknowledged there are reports 40 buildings were destroyed.
“We’re going to have crews in the morning start going through that (damage assessment) forensically. We’ll know more on Friday,” he told ABC.
Fire and Rescue NSW duty commander Inspector Kernin Lambert anticipates the final tally will be more than 40 homes lost.
“It’s a really high number … definitely,” he said on Thursday night.
“The sheer destructiveness of this front … it got to the point where houses were heavily involved in fire and we had to move on to where we could save people’s lives.”
Crews also continued fighting the 420,000-hectare Gospers Mountain blaze on Thursday night after a southerly wind change drove flames toward Bell in the upper Blue Mountains.
Firefighters are hoping to make the most of lower temperatures across NSW on Friday before extreme weather returns on Saturday.
Bureau of Meteorology acting NSW manager Jane Golding says the next 24 hours will be cooler but the whole state will heat up again on Saturday.
Northwest winds mean smoke will return to coastal communities while Sydney’s west could hit 45C or higher. The majority of the state away from the coast on Saturday will experience temperatures in the mid-to-high 40s.