February 4, 2020 / 5:44 AM / 16 days ago

'Black summer': Australian PM leads tribute to bushfire victims

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia suspended parliament on Tuesday to honor the victims of a national bushfire crisis that has killed 33 people, as more than 100 fires remained ablaze across the country’s east coast.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has received public criticism for his handling of the crisis, led a tribute as legislators returned to parliament for the first time after the long summer break.

“This is the black summer of 2019/20 that has proven our national character and resolve,” Morrison said. “These fires are yet to end and danger is still before us in many, many places, but today, we gather together to mourn, honor, reflect and begin to learn from the black summer that continues.”

Morrison said he has written to state and territory leaders to begin discussions on the terms of reference for a so-called Royal Commission inquiry into the official response to the crisis, including the deployment of emergency services, the role of the federal government, and the impact of climate change.

Morrison was forced into a rare public apology in December after he went on vacation to Hawaii as the fires escalated. His government’s stance on climate change, including its support for the coal industry, has drawn international criticism.

Fires burning since September have destroyed about 12 million hectares (29.7 million acres) across Australia’s most populous states. The blazes have destroyed about 2,500 homes, killed an estimated 1 billion native animals and threatened the habitats of many more.

Authorities said none of the blazes currently burning posed an immediate danger, thanks to cooler weather.

Reporting by Colin Packham; editing by Jane Wardell

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