SYDNEY, Australia – Volunteer firefighters in Australia will be offered government compensation after spending extended periods fighting bushfires raging across the country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Sunday, December 29.
Rural Fire Service volunteers who have spent at least 10 days battling blazes in worst-hit New South Wales (NSW) state are immediately eligible for the scheme, which offers payments of up to Aus$300 ($209) per day for a maximum of Aus$6,000 per person. (READ: ‘Catastrophic’ conditions as bushfires rage in Australia)
“While I know RFS volunteers don’t seek payment for their service, I don’t want to see volunteers or their families unable to pay bills, or struggle financially as a result of the selfless contribution they are making,” Morrison said.
“This is not about paying volunteers. It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss.”
Morrison said the compensation scheme would be rolled out across other Australian states and territories if local authorities requested that assistance.
“They run their own shows; they know what their challenges are,” he said of the state governments.
The scheme – which applies only to self-employed volunteers and those working for small- and medium-sized businesses – is expected to cost about Aus$50 million in NSW alone, which boasts the world’s largest volunteer fire service at 70,000 people.
Volunteers who are also government employees were last week granted additional paid leave to help fight the blazes.
Morrison has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks over his response to the bushfire crisis, which has killed 10 people, destroyed hundreds of homes, and scorched more than 3 million hectares. (READ: Australian PM denies climate link as smoke chokes Sydney)
The prime minister was forced to apologize for taking a family holiday to Hawaii as Australia battled the bushfires, a decision that sparked public outrage and prompted street protests.
Firefighters are now bracing for bushfire conditions to worsen on Tuesday, December 31, including in NSW where 85 blazes are still burning including 36 uncontained.
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters had put in “remarkable” work to contain fires over the cooler Christmas period.
“There was still thousands of firefighters and personnel out each day, hardening up the lines, and shoring up as much protection as they can,” he said.
Temperatures are expected to soar in the coming days, with increasing fire danger predicted for New Year’s Eve.
A major music festival in Victoria state was cancelled Sunday ahead of the forecast extreme weather conditions, with 9,000 people asked to leave the campsite due to risk of bushfires, smoke haze, and severe winds. – Rappler.com