Australia has been fighting wildfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving 8 people dead, more than 700 homes destroyed and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland burnt.
As fires ringed Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, a fire truck hit a tree and rolled over just to the south of the city, killing the driver and a front passenger, police said. Three other passengers survived with injuries.
“There is no finer person available in my view than someone who is willing to put themselves on the line for the want of nothing in return, no remuneration, nothing other than to make a positive difference in their local community,” New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.
“There is a definition of hero and these two line up to it.”
Fitzsimmons named the dead firefighters as Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, and Geoffrey Keaton, 32. Both men were fathers to 19-month old children, Fitzsimmons said.
Earlier three other firefighters were engulfed by flames as fierce winds fueled bushfires across the same state. Two men were airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces, arms and legs, while a female colleague was taken by ambulance to hospital.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the injured firefighters are now in stable condition.
Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires last month in the southern hemisphere spring is unprecedented.
The crisis has stoked widespread public anger, with protests around Australia, irritation fueled this week by Morrison going on leave. He has weathered a storm of criticism on social media, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.
Morrison’s office initially declined to comment on the reports, though eventually Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack confirmed he was acting leader.
Just hours after confirmation of the deaths of the firefighters, Morrison said he would be returning and issued an apology.
“I deeply regret any offense caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s arrival back in Australia is likely to coincide with temperatures again soaring.
On Thursday, Australia recorded its hottest day on record as national temperatures topped more than 42 degree Celsius (107.6 degree Fahrenheit).
While the mercury will cool on Friday, temperatures are expected to hit 40 degrees Celsius on the weekend, stoking fears of a fresh wave of fires across NSW.
The fires have resulted in days of heavy pollution in the city usually known for its sparkling harbor and blue skies.
Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels not previously seen in Sydney.
More about: #Australia