Australia strengthens bushfire defenses as economic, environmental costs mount

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian firefighters used a break from searing temperatures on Tuesday to strengthen containment lines around huge wildfires as the financial and environmental costs of the crisis mounted.

More than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land an area the size of South Korea - have been razed by bushfires across the country in recent weeks, according to the latest data, with the southeast particularly hard hit.

Imagery posted online from the Himawari 8 Japanese satellite and NASA’s Earth Observatory showed plumes of smoke from the fires reaching as far as South America.

Firefighters on the ground were making the most of a few days of cooler temperatures in the southeast to prepare for the expected return of heat and wind later this week that is expected to fan existing blazes and spark new ones.

“We need to remain vigilant,” Andrew Crisp, Victoria state’s emergency management commissioner, told reporters.

“We talk about benign conditions, and the fire is suppressed, but it is still there. It is still tinder dry.”

Australia’s bushfire season started earlier than normal this year following a three-year drought that has left much of the country’s bushland vulnerable to fires.

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Thousands of people have been left homeless, while many in rural towns have spent days without electricity, telecommunications and, in some cases, drinking water. Military-coordinated rescue and support efforts are going on.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the crisis would have a significant economic impact as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg met chief executives of insurers Insurance Australia Group, Suncorp Group and QBE Insurance Group, and local heads of Germany’s Allianz and Switzerland’s Zurich Insurance Group, plus heads of Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Westpac Banking Group.

Morrison on Monday pledged A$2 billion ($1.39 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

The Insurance Council of Australia increased its estimate for damage claims from the fires to more than A$700 million, with claims expected to jump when more fire-hit areas are accessible.

Following are some highlights of what is happening in the Australian bushfires crisis:

* Two men reported missing in New South Wales have been found, police said.

Slideshow ( 14 images )

* Forty-eight U.S. firefighters are scheduled to arrive in Australia on Wednesday, officials said, joining 39 compatriots already on the ground. A further 18 incident management personnel from the United States and Canada will arrive on Wednesday.

* Prime Minister Morrison said he spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also offered support.

* Morrison attended the funeral of volunteer firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer, who was killed along with colleague Geoffrey Keaton on Dec. 19 after a burnt tree fell in the path of their firetruck, causing it to roll.

Slideshow ( 14 images )

* Data showed the fires were beginning to have an effect on the economy. The ANZ gauge of consumer confidence fell last week to its lowest level in more than four years, while its job advertisement data recorded the biggest monthly drop in seven months in December.

* The military was deployed to help bury an estimated 4,000 dead sheep and cattle.

* Authorities said the number of people calling for urgent medical care in Victoria jumped 51% on Monday as smoke covered the state.

* There were 132 fires ablaze across New South Wales state, but all were back at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Victoria state had 39 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts.

* Almost 1,600 homes have been destroyed in NSW, Australia’s most populous state, authorities said. In Victoria state, authorities believe 300 homes have been destroyed.

* Insurers have received 8,985 bushfire-related claims in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland since the Insurance Council declared a bushfire catastrophe on Nov. 8. The claims are estimated to have a loss value of A$700 million. The council recorded the destruction of 1,838 residential properties.

* A member of parliament from Morrison’s party was criticized for an appearance on the “Good Morning Britain” ITV program during which he said there was no link between climate change and the bushfire crisis. “There is no link, the facts that cause the fires are the drought and the drying of the environment,” lawmaker Craig Kelly said.

Reporting by Colin Packham and Byron Kaye; additional reporting by Swati Pandey and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel