(Adds South Coast detail)
By John Mair and Lidia Kelly
SYDNEY, Jan 11 (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 still burning by Saturday afternoon, 59 of them not contained, but none at emergency level. About 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the state.
* One New South Wales person was taken to hospital in Sydney on Friday with serious burns suffered while defending a property.
* One fire was still burning at emergency level in Victoria on Saturday from a total of about 20 burning there.
* A number of fires burning in the Snowy Mountains region in New South Wales and across into Victoria have merged across more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land. They do not pose a threat, authorities say, despite being in an area hard to reach.
* Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville urged communities affected by the fires to use the expected milder weather conditions to check on each other.
* Thousands of Australians took to the streets on Friday to protest against government inaction on climate change, and were supported by protesters in London.
* Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.
* Australia’s alpine resorts have dusted off winter snowmaking machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes.
* The Insurance Council of Australia increased to more than A$900 million its estimate of damage claims from the fires, and they are expected to jump further.
* Health officials in New South Wales urged extra precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses.
* Australia’s wildfires have dwarfed other recent catastrophic blazes, with its burnt terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged by 2019 fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.
* Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping, with another 140 expected in coming weeks.
* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring programme said.
* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said.
(Reporting by John Mair and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Clarence Fernandez & Shri Navaratnam)