Sydney's iconic New Year's Eve fireworks will go ahead despite the wildfire crisis to show the world Australia's resiliency, the prime minister said, while authorities on Sunday braced for conditions to deteriorate with high temperatures.
A petition to cancel the fireworks and use the money to fight bushfires ringing the city has topped 260,000 signatures, but officials chose to ignore it.
Sydney is spending 6.5 million Australian dollars ($4.5 million) on this year's fireworks display – funds that the Change.org petition argues would be better spent on supporting volunteer firefighters and farmers suffering through a brutal drought.
The massive fireworks display on Sydney Harbour "may traumatize some people," the petition says, "as there is enough smoke in the air."
Toxic smoke haze from bushfires raging across Australia has blanketed Sydney and other major cities for weeks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison ignoring the petition announced financial support for some volunteer firefighters in New South Wales, the state worst hit by wildfires ravaging the nation.
"The world looks at Sydney every single year and they look at our vibrancy, they look at our passion, they look at our success," he said. "In the midst of the challenges that we face, subject to the safety considerations, I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country."
The City of Sydney Council gave the green light although fire authorities warned that the fireworks could be canceled if catastrophic conditions are declared.
Morrison said that eligible volunteer firefighters will receive AU$300 a day, up to AU$6,000 in total, if called out to battle blazes for more than 10 days. The compensation focused on people who are self-employed or work for small and medium businesses.
"The early and prolonged nature of this fire season has made a call beyond what is typically made on our volunteer firefighters," he said.
Morrison, who has been under pressure since taking a much-criticized family vacation to Hawaii during the wildfire crisis, announced last week that volunteer firefighters from the federal public sector will receive paid leave entitlements.
The opposition Labor party has been pressing the government to consider widespread compensation for volunteer firefighters.
"A lot of everyone's stunned, a lot of time away from work," said Sean Warren, a volunteer firefighter for about seven years. "A lot of people are using up their annual leave as well. A lot of people are just missing their families ... They've skipped Christmas with their families and their grandchildren. So yeah, it's a wide extreme of sacrifice that people have been putting in."
Morrison said the compensation was necessary so that the New South Wales fires commissioner is in a position to continue to call out the volunteer force.
The program is expected to cost AU$50 million but will be uncapped with the first AU$10 million being made available next month. Morrison said it would be offered to other states and territories requesting help.
Wildfires have also flared in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.
New South Wales, the country's most populous state, has received the brunt of the wildfire catastrophe, which has killed nine people nationwide and razed more than 1,000 homes in the past few months.
High temperatures in the country's east are expected until the new year. Sydney's western suburbs were set to hit 41 degrees Celsius Sunday before peaking at 44 degrees Celsius on Tuesday.
Fire danger in Sydney and northern New South Wales is currently at very high.
New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said 85 fires were still burning across the state with almost half of them not contained.
"We've got some deteriorating weather conditions over the coming days, particularly Monday and worsening through to Tuesday," he said.
An emergency warning was issued Sunday for Victoria's east as conditions worsen. Melbourne, the state's capital, was set to reach 43 degrees Celsius on Monday.
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