Tokyo 2020 delay looms after Canada and Australia exit

By Steve Keating and Leika Kihara

TORONTO/TOKYO (Reuters) – Major sporting nations Australia and Canada withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Monday as organizers faced global pressure to postpone the Games due to the coronavirus crisis for the first time in their 124-year modern history.

Putting back the July 24-Aug. 9 event, as is looking inevitable, would be a massive blow for host Japan which has pumped in more than $12 billion of investment.

Huge sums are also at stake for sponsors and broadcasters.

But a groundswell of concern from athletes – already struggling to train as gyms, stadiums and swimming pools close around the world – appears to be tipping the balance, along with the cancellation of other major sports events.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese government have both edged back from weeks of blanket insistence the Games would go ahead, announcing a month-long consultation over other scenarios including postponement.

The Olympics have never before been delayed, though they were canceled altogether in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during the World Wars, and major Cold War boycotts disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in 1980 and 1984 respectively.

“The moment the IOC indicates that it is thinking about other solutions, it has already decided to delay the Games,” said French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia.

Canada and Australia both bluntly said they would not participate if the Games were not put back to 2021 and Britain may follow suit.

“We are in the midst of a global health crisis that is far more significant than sport,” said Canada’s Olympic Committee (COC) and Paralympic Committee (CPC) in a statement.

“STRESS AND UNCERTAINTY”

“Our athletes have been magnificent in their positive attitude to training and preparing, but the stress and uncertainty have been extremely challenging for them,” said Australia’s Olympics Chef de Mission, Ian Chesterman.

Paralympic athletes were considered at particular risk from the epidemic given some had underlying health problems. More than 14,600 people have died globally from the coronavirus.

Russia urged global sporting authorities to avoid “panic” over the Olympics and U.S. President Donald Trump expressed confidence in Japan to make the “proper” call.

But a raft of other nations and sports bodies piled pressure on the IOC – and its powerful president Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencing champion – to make a quick decision on postponement.

“The faster the decision the better it is for the entire Olympic movement,” Greece’s Olympic head, Spyros Capralos, a former water polo player, told Reuters.

“I understand where the athletes are coming from … When you cannot train you are stressed, you live in agony which is disastrous. Postponement is inevitable.”

Athletes were sad but broadly supportive of a delay.

“The right choice was made, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” said Canadian world champion swimmer Maggie MacNeil, who was hoping to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo.

“Sometimes you just need a good hug.”

ABE AND BACH UNDER PRESSURE

Japanese authorities seemed to be bowing to the inevitable despite the losses and logistics headaches it would entail.

“We may have no option but to consider postponing,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was hoping for a boom in tourism and consumer spending, told parliament.

The organizing committee was already scaling back the torch relay to avoid crowds, NHK broadcaster said.

Both Japan and the IOC have stressed that calling off the Games entirely is not an option.

But finding a new date could be complicated as the summer 2021 calendar is already crowded, while 2022 will see the soccer World Cup and the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Japanese sponsors, from Toyota Motor Corp to Panasonic Corp, were nervously watching. But Tokyo stocks sensitive to the success of the Olympics surged on Monday, after sharp falls in prior weeks, thanks to expectations of a delay rather than a cancellation.

Ad agency Dentsu Group shares jumped 12%.

Postponement could be a major blow to the IOC’s prestige after weeks of saying the Games would go ahead as planned.

Many athletes already felt disrespected during the Russian doping scandal when Bach ensured Russians could carry on competing, albeit as neutrals. Now his strong grip on the IOC could weaken after various national committees distanced themselves from his stance over Tokyo.

“IOC President Thomas Bach’s stubbornness and arrogance have spectacularly failed in this instance and he has weakened the Olympic movement,” British Olympic gold medal track cyclist Callum Skinner wrote on Twitter.

Bach is up for re-election in 2021.

Global Athlete Group said the IOC’s planned, month-long consultation was irresponsible. “Over the next four weeks the world is going to increasingly shut down, the COVID-19 virus will sadly take more lives, and without a clear answer, athletes are still being indirectly asked to train,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Karolos Grohmann and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Lockdowns and entry bans imposed around the world to fight coronavirus

(Reuters) – France and Spain joined Italy in imposing lockdowns on tens of millions of people, Australia ordered self-isolation of arriving foreigners and other countries extended entry bans as the world sought to contain the spreading coronavirus.

Panic buying in Australia, the United States and Britain saw leaders appeal for calm over the virus that has infected over 156,000 people globally and killed more than 5,800.

Several countries imposed bans on mass gathering, shuttered sporting, cultural and religious events, while medical experts urged people to practice “social distancing” to curb the spread.

Austria’s chancellor urged people to self-isolate and announced bans on gatherings of more than five people and further limits on who can enter the country.

All of Pope Francis’ Easter services next month will be held without the faithful attending, the Vatican said on Sunday, in a step believed to be unprecedented in modern times.

The services, four days of major events from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, usually draw tens of thousands of people to sites in Rome and in the Vatican.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said from midnight Sunday international travelers arriving in the country would need to isolate themselves for 14 days, and foreign cruise ships would be banned for 30 days, given a rise in imported cases.

Australia’s latest restrictions mirror those announced by neighboring New Zealand on Saturday.

TRAVEL BANS, AIRLINE CUTBACKS

Donald Trump tested negative for the coronavirus, his doctor said on Saturday, as the U.S. president extended his country’s travel ban to Britain and Ireland.

Last week, Trump had met a Brazilian delegation in which at least one member has since been tested positive.

Travel restrictions and bans, and a plunge in global air travel, saw further airline cutbacks, with American Airlines Inc planning to cut 75% of international flights through May 6 and ground nearly all its widebody fleet.

China tightened checks on international travelers arriving at Beijing airport on Sunday, after the number of imported new coronavirus infections surpassed locally transmitted cases for a second day in a row.

Anyone arriving to Beijing from abroad will be transferred directly to a central quarantine facility for 14 days for observation starting March 16, a city government official said.

China, where the epidemic began in December, appears to now face a greater threat of new infections from outside its borders as it continues to slow the spread of the virus domestically.

South Korean soldiers clean desks with disinfectant in a classroom of a cram school for civil service exams, following the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Daegu, South Korea, March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

China has reported 80,984 cases and 3,203 deaths. The country imposed draconian containment policies from January, locking down several major cities.

LOCKDOWNS, STAY HOME

Spain put its 47 million inhabitants under partial lockdown on Saturday as part of a 15-day state of emergency to combat the epidemic in Europe’s second worst-affected country after Italy.

Streets in Madrid and Barcelona were deserted on Sunday. All major newspapers carried a front-page wrapper emblazoned with a government-promoted slogan: “Together we’ll stop this virus.”

Spain has had 193 deaths from the virus and 6,250 cases so far, public broadcaster TVE said on Sunday.

France will shut shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities from Sunday with its 67 million people were told to stay home after confirmed infections doubled in 72 hours.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government had no other option after the public health authority said 91 people had died in France and almost 4,500 were now infected.

“We must absolutely limit our movements,” he said.

However, French local elections went ahead.

“I am going to vote and keep living my life no matter what. I am not scared of the virus,” said a 60-year-old voter, who asked to be identified only as Martine, at a Paris polling station.

Britain is preparing to ban mass gatherings and could isolate people aged over 70 for up to four months as part of plans to tackle coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

Argentina banned entry to non-residents who have been to any country highly affected by coronavirus in the last 14 days, while Colombia said it would expel four Europeans for violating compulsory quarantine protocols, hours after closing its border with Venezuela.

Starting Sunday, South Korea began to subject visitors from France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands to stricter border checks, after imposing similar rules for China, Italy and Iran which have had major outbreaks.

Visitors from those countries now need to download an app to report whether they have symptoms. South Korea has been testing hundreds of thousands of people and tracking potential carriers using cell phone and satellite technology.

(Reporting by John Irish in Paris;Belén Carreño, Sonya Dowsett and Ingrid Melander in Madrid; Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Judy Hua in Beijing; Kate Lamb in Sydney; David Shepardson in Washington; Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Paul Sandle in London; Philip Pullella in Rome; Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; Writing by Michael Perry and Frances Kerry; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Edmund Blair)

Australia’s bushfire-stricken state pays tribute to 25 victims

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Families, firefighters and politicians gathered in a solemn public ceremony in Sydney on Sunday to honor the 25 people killed in recent bushfires that tore through the country’s most populous state.

The bushfires, which lasted from September until torrential rains hit earlier this month, killed 33 people and a billion native animals nationally and destroyed 2,500 homes and a wilderness area the size of South Korea.

The damage was most devastating in New South Wales state. Among the 25 people killed there were 19 civilians, three local volunteer firefighters and three U.S. firefighters.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who thanked those who fought the blazes and honored those who died, spoke of “children kissing the coffins of their fathers” and “mothers who should have never had to bury their children”.

He told the public, gathered around lit candles, of “a summer where the dark sky turned black and sunsets only signaled another night of terror, where the fire crashed on our beaches from the bush that surrounded them”.

Morrison has drawn public anger for his refusal to directly link the bushfires to climate change, insisting removing flammable vegetation is “just as important, if not more”.

His management of the fires also came under criticism over the unusually prolonged summer wildfire season, when he was forced into a rare public apology for taking a holiday to Hawaii.

Last week, he said Australia would conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the causes of the fires.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who played a very public role during the crisis, said the season will be remembered as one of the most challenging, in which the loss of life was enormous.

“Each one of those is a story of grief, of profound loss, and great sadness, of lives cut short, and of families being changed forever,” Fitzsimmons said.

Six pairs of boots were placed to symbolize the lives of the three Australian volunteers and the three U.S. firefighters who died in NSW.

(Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Heavy rains bring both relief and new dangers to bushfire-hit Australia

By Sonali Paul and Jonathan Barrett

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – A four-day downpour across Australia’s east coast has brought relief after months of devastating bushfires and years of drought, but also widespread storm damage and forecasts of more wild weather to come.

The weekend drenching represented the biggest sustained run of rainfall in Sydney and surrounding areas for 30 years, dousing some bushfires and replenishing depleted dams across New South Wales, the country’s most populous state.

Some rural areas received more rain in recent days than they had in the entirety of the past year – a startling and swift turnaround from the bushfires that have killed 33 people and ravaged large parts of the east coast.

“It’s amazing what the smell of the rain can do to people’s spirits,” Ben Shields, the mayor of the inland city of Dubbo, told Reuters on the phone.

Like many other rural towns, Dubbo has been beset by duststorms and subjected to water restrictions on the back of a three-year drought.

James Jackson, a sheep and cattle farmer in the drought-hit Guyra district some 500 kilometers (311 miles) north of Sydney, told Reuters the region was starting to turn green again.

“This one event won’t replenish the whole soil moisture profile. We’ll need a couple of these, but this is certainly a good start for those people who got it,” said Jackson, who is also the president of industry body NSW Farmers.

“I have two-year-old sheep who are seeing green grass for the first time.”

Bushfire warning signs were almost swamped by floods in several areas as the weekend rainfall cut power to tens of thousands of homes, caused travel chaos in Sydney and closed scores of schools for the start of the week.

Almost 400 millimeters (15.8 inches) of rain fell in the Sydney area and surrounding areas. The Warragamba Dam, which supplies about four-fifths of Sydney’s water, jumped from about 40% to above 60% full in just over a week, the state’s water authority said, shoring up water supplies for the city of 5 million.

The NSW Rural Fire Service’s Sydney headquarters has been reconfigured to respond to floods and storm damage because of the rapid shift in the weather threat.

WILDFIRES EXTINGUISHED

Parts of northern and inland NSW, along with southern Queensland, have been in drought since 2016, severely reducing river and dam levels while also creating the tinder-dry conditions that have fueled this season’s deadly bushfires.

The weekend rain extinguished some of the worst bushfires in NSW, including the Gospers Mountain ‘megafire’ in the Blue Mountains and the Currawon blaze on the south coast. Each burned for months, together razing more than 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of bushland and destroying hundreds of homes.

In contrast, flood evacuation warnings have now been ordered for parts of the Conjola region, authorities said, where deadly fires razed dozens of homes on New Year’s Eve. Thunderstorms are forecast for NSW and neighboring Victoria state in coming days.

The rain has put some much-needed moisture into parched land months out from the all-important wheat-planting season which is crucial to the fortunes of Australia’s biggest crop.

Phin Ziebell, agribusiness economist at National Australia Bank, said the rain would also encourage farmers in the north-east state of Queensland to rebuild their stock numbers now they had water and feed.

“Some of the driest parts of Queensland have received a drenching, which will help pasture growth,” Ziebell said.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; additional reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jane Wardell)

Australia receives bushfire reprieve with floods, battens down for cyclone

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Many Australians were experiencing a bittersweet break from the threat of bushfires on Thursday, with flooding rains deluging some parts of the eastern states and miners preparing for a tropical cyclone to hit the country’s iron ore heartland over the weekend.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issued severe thunderstorm warnings for the southeast of Queensland state and a flood alert for more than 20 areas in New South Wales (NSW) after the start of heavy rainfall that is expected to continue for several days.

Warm, moist air feeding in from the east was bringing the rain, BOM forecaster Mike Funnell told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“We are expecting those larger totals and heavier rainfall to come into the northeast coast of NSW and then sort of track slowly southwards,” he said.

Cricket Australia said a bushfire fundraising match which was set to be played in Sydney on Saturday had to be rescheduled for Melbourne on Sunday because of the rain.

Miners Rio Tinto and BHP Group said they were monitoring the situation and making preparations ahead of Saturday, when a tropical low off the coast of Western Australia is forecast to develop into a category three cyclone that was set to make landfall in the Pilbara area.

“With strong winds and heavy seas predicted, both Port Walcott (Cape Lambert) and Dampier ports are being cleared, as this impacts the ability to safely moor vessels,” Rio said.

“We have also started the process of demobilizing non-essential people from our sites which may be affected by the weather system,” it said in a statement.

The wet weather has helped douse or slow some of the country’s most damaging and long-running wildfires, which have burned through more than 11.7 million hectares (2.8 million acres) of land since September. The prolonged bushfire season has killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals. More than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.

Officials, however, have warned the threat was not yet over and that there will likely be weeks more of firefighting ahead.

Around 60 fires were still burning across NSW and Victoria, the country’s most populous states, with around half of those classified as uncontained.

(Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney and Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast)

Australia defends choice of remote detention center to house locals evacuated from Wuhan

Australia defends choice of remote detention center to house locals evacuated from Wuhan
By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s conservative government on Thursday defended its decision to use a detention center thousands of kilometers from the mainland to quarantine locals evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Australia on Wednesday said it would evacuate “isolated and vulnerable” locals from Wuhan as part of a joint operation with New Zealand.

Some health officials have criticized the decision to move those people to Christmas Island – about 2,600km (1,616 miles) from Australia and that had been used to hold thousands of refugees between 2002 and 2018.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said Australia has no other choice.

“The reality is people need to be accommodated for somewhere for up to 14 days. I can’t clear out a hospital in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane,” Dutton told reporters in Canberra. “I don’t have a facility otherwise that we can quickly accommodate for what might be many hundreds of people and Christmas Island is purpose-built for exactly this scenario.”

The detention center on Christmas Island was reopened last year after a decade of being idled. It houses a Tamil family whom Australia wants to deport to Sri Lanka.

Australia, which has seven cases of coronavirus, said about 600 people have told the government they are in Wuhan, though Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was not clear how many wanted to leave China.

Morrison said priority would be given to infants and elderly people.

On Thursday, the global death toll from the epidemic hit 170 people, while the number of infected patients rose to 7,711.

Australia’s defense of its policy came as several countries began isolating hundreds of citizens evacuated from Wuhan.

Nearly 200 Americans, mostly U.S. diplomats and their families, airlifted from Wuhan on Wednesday, will remain isolated at a U.S. military base in California for at least 72 hours of medical observation, public health officials said.

A second flight with Japanese evacuees from Wuhan landed in Japan on Thursday, with nine people showing symptoms of fever or coughing, broadcaster NHK reported. The first flight landed on Wednesday and at least one more is expected in coming days.

New Zealand on Thursday said it would charter an aircraft to assist citizens wanting to leave Wuhan.

(Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Heatwave and high winds threaten to reignite Australian wildfires

By Paulina Duran

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Swathes of southeast Australia were bracing on Thursday for a days-long heatwave that threatens to stoke bushfires that have been burning for months.

As firefighters and residents prepared for the heightened danger, the New South Wales (NSW) state government launched a six-month inquiry to examine both the causes of and response to this season’s deadly wildfires.

“We don’t want to waste the opportunity to take on board any recommendations we need to adopt ahead of the bushfire season this year … as we approach summer of 2021,” said Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of NSW.

NSW state has been one of the hardest hit by bushfires, which started earlier than usual in September. The blazes have burnt out more than 11.7 million hectares (117,000 sq km) across Australia’s most populous states, killing at least 33 people and about 1 billion animals, and destroying 2,500 homes.

Fire danger warnings were issued on Thursday for several areas in South Australia state, where temperatures were forecast to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and winds were expected to reach 35 kph (22 mph).

Among them was Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination that has already been razed by fires that killed two people. After a day of heat, by early evening no new fires had emerged.

“On Friday, there will also be hot and windy conditions, however, some parts of the Island may experience rainfall from mid-morning,” the state’s fire service said.

“A total Fire Ban is in place on the island, with a rating of SEVERE.”

In Victoria state, authorities issued a watch and act warning for people near Bendoc in the Snowy Mountains close to the New South Wales border.

“Don’t wait, leaving now is the safest option – conditions may change and get worse very quickly. Emergency Services may not be able to help you if you decide to stay,” emergency services officials said.

The severe heat and high winds are forecast to hit NSW and Victoria states from Friday threatening to spark new life into some of the 87 fires burning across the three states or create new blazes.

Australia’s dangerous summer weather has largely been driven by temperature variations in the Indian Ocean, which the country’s weather bureau said on Thursday were likely to keep conditions hot and dry until March.

Martin Webster, a NSW Rural Fire Service officer, highlighted the strains facing the state’s 74,000-strong volunteer brigade as the huge fires continued to burn.

“Our local crews have been actively involved in firefighting since August and we are still long way from being out of the woods, so we are talking six or seven months of firefighting,” Webster told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Here are Thursday’s key events in the bushfire crisis:

* There were five fires burning in the state of South Australia, 64 in New South Wales and 18 in Victoria.

* Berejiklian, firefighting officials and family of three U.S. firefighters killed in a plane crash in remote bushland last week, attended a memorial service where members of the aviation community paid their respects.

* Three firefighters who were trying to contain blazes in the Orroral Valley near Canberra were reported injured after a tree fell on their truck on Wednesday night, the ABC reported. Officials in the capital did not immediately return requests for information.

* Rating agency Moody’s on Wednesday warned increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters related to climate change would likely put at risk the ‘AAA’ credit rating of NSW.

(Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Additional reporting by Colin Packham and Melanie Burton.; Editing by Jane Wardell, Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams)

Australia’s rainy respite from bushfires seen ending

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A recent respite for Australian firefighters that brought rains and cooler weather is set to end, meteorologists warned on Monday, with hot conditions forecast for later this week raising a risk that blazes may start spreading again.

Australia experiences regular bushfires over summer, but this season’s fires began early and have claimed 33 lives in the past four months, killed millions of animals and charred an area nearly the size of Greece.

More than a week of solid rain in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, the three states most affected by the fires, has more than halved the number of blazes, but above average temperatures were set to return by the weekend.

“Unfortunately, the reprieve may be short-lived with a blast of heat likely late this week in some areas,” the New South Wales Bureau of Meteorology said on Twitter.

As of Monday, 59 bush and grass fires were burning throughout New South Wales state, 28 of which were yet not contained.

“More than 1,300 firefighters are using more favorable conditions to slow the spread of fires and strengthen containment lines, ahead of forecast increasing temperatures later in the week,” the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said on Twitter.

Temperatures in Melbourne, where the Australian Open tennis tournament is in its second week, are forecast to reach 41 Celsius (105.8 Fahrenheit) on Friday.

Following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:

* Rainfall continued in Queensland, with some areas receiving nearly a sixth of their annual average in a 24-hour period on Monday.

* Australian authorities are yet to determine what caused a plane that carried three U.S. firefighters to crash last week in New South Wales.

* Wayne Coulson, chief operating officer of Coulson Group, the Canadian firm that owned the plane and employed its crew, said on Monday he flew to the crash site. “To see our aircraft on the ground, knowing we have had such loss of life was devastating,” he said.

* One in two Australians have donated money to support bushfire relief efforts, a new survey showed over the weekend.

* Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday that he will move a motion of condolence at parliament’s first sitting in early February.

* A bushfire near Canberra, the country’s capital, was at “watch and act” level with fire services saying that no properties were under threat, but warning also the situation may deteriorate.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Australia evacuates parts of its capital as bushfire conditions return

By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Some residents of Australia’s capital Canberra were evacuated briefly on Wednesday after a bushfire broke out near the airport as searing hot weather ended a few days of respite and the number of out-of-control blazes surged in the southeast of the country.

Roads were closed and the authorities told people to leave or stay away from suburbs east of Canberra, as photos posted on social media showed gray smoke billowing above the city’s suburbs. There were no reports of injuries or damage, and the warning was downgraded an hour later.

“I can see the smoke from my house,” said Kane Cawse, a gym owner, by telephone as he drove toward his business in the evacuation zone about 14 km (9 miles) from the country’s parliament.

“I’m just going to see exactly what’s going on, make sure I’ve got a gym and make sure that the guys are either safe or out,” he added.

In recent weeks, Canberra and the cities of Sydney and Melbourne experienced air quality rated among the worst in the world under thick clouds of bushfire smoke.

The fire broke out as a huge dust storm crossed the country’s south, leaving skies deep orange and engulfing some outback towns, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Since September, hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people as well as an estimated 1 billion native animals, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland larger than the size of Austria.

Firefighters had taken advantage of rain and milder temperatures in the past week to contain blazes, but the respite ended on Wednesday when high temperatures and winds returned.

An economic survey on Wednesday meanwhile showed the fires were causing Australians to tighten their purse strings, a sign the natural disaster is putting pressure on the world’s 14th-biggest economy.

Economists said the cost to Australia’s A$1.95 trillion ($1.33 trillion) economy could be as high as A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), shaving 0.25 points off gross domestic product in the December and March quarters, and potentially prompting the central bank to cut rates as early as February.

Consumer sentiment in January was 6.2% lower than a year earlier, according to the Melbourne Institute and Westpac Bank survey released on Wednesday. Consumer sentiment data is considered a leading indicator, running ahead of actual spending data.

The huge bushfires have cut through the country’s east coast during the peak summer months when many businesses usually rake in earnings from both domestic and foreign tourists. Agricultural sectors, particularly the dairy industry, have also been hard hit.

Here are today’s key events in the bushfire crisis:

* Suburbs near Canberra Airport were evacuated late on Wednesday as an emergency level fire burned. There were no reports of injury or damage.

* The wildfires have killed 29 people, destroyed more than 2,500 homes and razed 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of wilderness – an area one-third the size of Germany – since September.

* Scores of fires were burning in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria on Wednesday. Temperatures in Victoria were expected to top 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, leading officials to declare “extreme fire danger” in some areas. Temperatures in NSW were forecast to hit 40C (104F) on Thursday.

* A Reuters analysis shows that Australian animals living in specific habitats, such as mountain lizards, leaf-tailed geckos and pear-shaped frogs, are battling the threat of extinction after fierce bushfires razed large areas of their homes.

* The air in Sydney is expected to again reach hazardous pollution levels on Thursday as smoke drifts over the city, the NSW state government said.

* Players at the Australian Open tennis tournament continued to make pledges of financial assistance. Among the latest were the seventh seed, Alexander Zverev, who said he would donate A$10,000 for each match he wins and pledged his entire prize money of A$4.12 million if he wins the tournament. American John Isner has pledged 25% of all his prize money and A$100 for every ace he serves.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye, Colin Packham and Swati Pandey in Sydney; editing by Jane Wardell and Christian Schmollinger)

Australia’s bushfire-stricken east welcomes drenching rain

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Intense thunderstorms with heavy rains dampened bushfires on Australia’s east coast on Friday, to the relief of exhausted firefighters and farmers battling years of drought, and granting a reprieve to the organisers of next week’s Australian Open.

Australia, famous for its pristine beaches and wildlife, has been fighting bushfires since September, with fires killing 29 people and millions of animals, and destroying more than 2,500 homes while razing an area roughly a third the size of Germany.

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, three of the states most affected by drought and bushfires welcomed this week’s drenching rain, with fire services saying it would not extinguish all the blazes, but would greatly aid containment.

“Our fingers are crossed that this continues over the coming days,” New South Wales fire services said on Twitter on Friday.

Severe storms are forecast to continue in many fire-stricken regions of New South Wales and Queensland, including areas that have not seen heavy falls for years, weather officials in New South Wales said, slightly easing a three-year drought.

“The recent rain has just been absolutely fantastic,” said cattle farmer Sam White near the northern town of Guyra in New South Wales.

“It’s producing significant amounts of runoff, which is what we need, and it’s getting into our dams.”

While the wet weather brings relief to fire fighters and drought-hit farmers, it also comes with dangers, such as flash flooding and falling trees. One wildlife park had to rescue koalas from floodwaters and beat back crocodiles with brooms.

The heavy downpours have helped to clean smoky air in Australia, but Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne remained in the world’s top 100 polluted cities on Friday, a pollution ranking by AirVisual showed.

Melbourne, shrouded this week in thick smoke that disrupted the Australian Open qualifying matches and other competitions, is forecast to again be blanketed by unhealthy air over the weekend, before the Grand Slam begins in earnest on Monday.

But fears the smoke would return on Saturday for the final round of qualifying eased on Friday, when the Environmental Protection Agency forecast air quality in the Melbourne area would be “moderate” rather than “very poor”.

The smoke haze plaguing Australia’s major cities for weeks has been tracked by NASA circumnavigating the globe and the space agency’s satellites showed on Thursday there was also a large concentration of lower smoke over the Pacific Ocean.

Here are key events in the bushfire crisis:

* Early on Friday, 82 fires were burning across New South Wales, 30 uncontained, and several in Victoria, fire authorities said.

* An emergency evacuation order was issued for parts of Victoria’s northeast, with an out-of-control bushfire threatening the Buffalo River Valley.

* Firefighters, family and the community of Holbrook in New South Wales bade farewell to Samuel McPaul, a 28-year-old volunteer who died in December while fighting a massive and fast-moving blaze.

* Australia will have to wait until March for rains heavy enough to bring sustained relief from dry weather that has fuelled the bushfires, the weather bureau said.

* Top tourism body estimates the bushfire crisis has cost the Australian industry almost A$1 billion ($690 million). [L4N29L069]

* Players’ complaints about pollution blighted qualifying rounds of the Australian Open in Melbourne, the year’s first tennis Grand Slam.

 

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)