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Australia goes on the offensive in wildfire battle

Nick Perry
The Associated Press

BODALLA, Australia — Crews battling Australia’s wildfires said Sunday that they have been able to turn from defense to offense for the first time in weeks thanks to a break in the weather.

Dale McLean, who is helping manage the response to a fire near the town of Bodalla in New South Wales state, was part of team that was bulldozing down small trees and burning scrub ahead of the fire’s projected path to try to stop it from reaching a major highway by starving it of fuel.

“This fire took a major run about seven or eight days ago, and with the weather changing now, the weather settling down, the fire has settled down,” he said. “The fire behavior has changed. So we’re able to get in front of the fire now, get on the offensive.”

Other workers echoed McLean’s comments, saying cooler temperatures and mild winds have finally offered them a chance to make progress. The weather is expected to remain benign for the next week, although any deterioration in conditions after that could see the wildfires flare up again.

Meanwhile, U.S. tennis star Serena Williams donated her $43,000 winner’s check from New Zealand’s ASB Classic to the fundraising appeal for victims of the wildfires, joining many other tennis stars to pledge money, including Ash Barty, Nick Kygrios, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova.

While battling the blazes, volunteer firefighting veteran Mick Stain found some moth larvae, or “witchetty grubs,” and turned them into what’s known in Australia as bush tucker by roasting them directly on the fire’s burning coals.

“Bit creamy and nutty, but they’re all right,” Stain said. “They’re not spew-worthy, so they’re pretty good.”

Also on Sunday, news came that another firefighter had been killed. Bill Slade — one of the few professionals among mainly volunteer brigades battling blazes across southeast Australia — died after being hit by a falling tree on Saturday near Omeo in eastern Victoria state, Forest Fire Management Victoria Executive Director Chris Hardman said.

The 60-year-old married father of two was commended in November for 40 years of service with the forestry agency.

“Although we do have enormous experience in identifying hazardous trees, sometimes these tree failures can’t be predicted,” Hardman said. “Working on the fire ground in a forest environment is a dynamic, high-risk environment and it carries with it significant risk.”

Death toll at 27: The tragedy brings the death toll to at least 27 in a crisis that has destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area larger than the U.S. state of Indiana since September. Four of the casualties have been firefighters.

The crisis has brought accusations that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government needs to take more action to counter climate change, which experts say has worsened the blazes. Thousands of protesters rallied in Sydney and Melbourne, calling for Morrison to be fired and for Australia to take tougher action on global warming.

The prime minister said Sunday that his government was building resilience to the fire danger posed by climate change. He said the government was developing a national disaster risk reduction framework within the Department of Home Affairs that will deal with wildfires, cyclones, floods and drought.

“This is a longer-term risk framework model which deals with one of the big issues in response to the climate changing,” he said.