Two firefighters die, three hurt as wildfires ravage Australia

PERTH, AUSTRALIA (AP) — Two volunteer firefighters died on Thursday while battling wildfires ravaging Australia’s most populous state, forcing Prime Minister Scott Morrison to cut short his family holiday as authorities braced for temperatures to soar in New South Wales at the weekend.

Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, were in a truck convoy fighting blazes southwest of Sydney when a tree fell and caused the vehicle to roll off the road. The two men, both fathers to 19-month-old children, died at the scene while three other firefighters were injured and taken to a hospital. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the injured firefighters were in stable condition.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons spent the night consoling families of the victims.

“To not be coming home after their shift is a tremendous grief and I applaud the families and the loved ones for their remarkable comprehension of what’s been unfolding,” he told reporters.

“Both of these men were very well respected, they were very close, they’re a close-knit brigade, they’re a very community-focused brigade, work together, socialise together, they’re very interactive together.”

A fire truck is seen during a bushfire near Bilpin, 90 kilometres northwest of Sydney. PHOTO: AP

Morrison said the two firefighters were “bravely defending their communities with an unmatched spirit and a dedication that will forever set them apart amongst our most courageous Australians”.

“Their sacrifice and service saving lives and saving properties will be forever remembered. I wish those injured all the best in their recovery,” he added.

The Rural Fire Service said up to 40 houses could be destroyed southwest of Sydney.

Cooler conditions provided desperately needed relief yesterday, but scorching temperatures are forecast at the weekend with Sydney’s western suburbs tipped to reach 45 degrees Celsius.

New South Wales declared a seven-day state of emergency on Thursday as around 2,000 firefighters battle 100 wildfires across the state. Around three million hectares of land has burnt nationwide during a torrid past few months, with six people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed. The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.

The Bureau of Meteorology said on Wednesday was the hottest day on record in Australia with an average of 41.9 Celsius, beating the landmark set a day earlier by one degree.