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Natural disasters

Australia fire burns area 20 times the size of Tokyo

Prime Minister Morrison scrambles to contain political and economic damage

In this Sunday, Jan. 5 photo provided by Australian Department of Defense, the flight deck of a C-130J Hercules aircraft has a warm glow from wildfires, as they prepare to land at Merimbula airfield to deploy Fire and Rescue crews.   © AP

SYDNEY -- The Australian government is under heavy criticism over its sluggish response to raging fires which have reportedly burned a total of 52,000 sq. km of land -- an area twenty times larger than Tokyo and greater than what was lost to fire in Brazil's Amazon rainforest last year.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans on Saturday to deploy 3,000 military reservists to help with recovery efforts. He also said he will postpone a trip to Japan and India, which had been scheduled for mid-January.

But the damage to his political clout and the national economy are clear.

At least 10 have been killed in fires in eastern Australia since Dec. 30. The navy has been evacuating trapped tourists and residents since Friday.

Bush fires usually start up when summer begins here around December. But last year, the fires began in September and intensified in November as the country experienced its driest and fifth-hottest spring on record. Average rainfall from September to November marked a new low of 27mm, according to Australia's Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures only increased in December, with the national average reaching a record 41.9 C on Dec. 18.

Criticism has grown over Morrison's slow response. The prime minister left for a family vacation in Hawaii in mid-December, initially in secret. He later cut the trip short as the damage spread.

Many Australians also blame the government for dragging its feet in fighting climate change, which is considered the underlying cause of the devastating fires. Morrison said he will not "engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching targets" in a TV appearance in late December, triggering pushback over his government's coal-friendly policies.

"What people are looking for is [national] coordination on things like supplies, logistics, telecommunications, petrol," said Andrew Hughes, lecturer at Australian National University.

"What people got really frustrated about really quickly was that there seemed to be nothing being said by the prime minister about those issues," he said.

The approval rating for the ruling coalition, which won the general elections in May on promises of greater cooperation with the U.S., came to 52% in early December, according to The Australian newspaper. While still ahead of the opposition Labor Party, whose approval stands at 48%, the coalition could lose its footing if criticism over the fires continues to mount.

Meanwhile, the fires are also putting pressure on the Australian economy. New-vehicle sales dropped 7.8% in 2019 to 1,062,867 units, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries announced Monday. The figure sank for the second straight year to its lowest since 2011.

"2019 reflects a tough year for the Australian economy, with challenges including tightening of lending, movements in exchange rates, slow wages growth and, of course, the extreme environmental factors our country is experiencing" said Tony Weber, chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

New-vehicle sales had topped records for three straight years until 2017 amid economic growth. But housing prices began dropping toward the end of that year, which squeezed consumption.

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