BATEMANS BAY: Australians on Sunday counted the cost from a day of catastrophic bushfires that caused “extensive damage” across swathes of the country and took the death toll from the long-running crisis to 24.

Hundreds of properties were destroyed and one man died trying to save a friend’s home as the severe conditions — among the worst in Australia’s months-long bushfire crisis. In the country’s southeast the skies turned black and ash rained on isolated communities. “We’re in uncharted territory,” New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. “We can’t pretend that this is something that we have experienced before. It’s not,” she said. “Several townships who never ever experienced a threat of bushfire were at threat of being completely wiped out.”

The severity of the crisis — which has seen an area roughly double the size of Belgium burnt — saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison announce the largest military call-up in living memory, mobilising up to 3,000 reservists to assist exhausted volunteer firefighters. But in rare public criticism, the New South Wales rural fire service chief said he only found out about the deployment from media reports — the latest criticism of the prime minister’s response to the disaster. “I was disappointed and frustrated in the middle of one of our worst days with massive dislocation and movement of people,” Shane Fitzsimmons said. “We spent a fair amount of the day yesterday trying to seek clarity.”

In Cooma in inland southern New South Wales, the fire crisis turned into a flood disaster when a large tower carrying 4.5 million litres of water swept away cars and filled homes with mud. ”First bushfire and now flood, back-toback disasters,” a shaken resident told AFP.

Australia’s capital Canberra was ranked as the city with the poorest air quality in the world on Sunday by Air Visual, an independent online air quality index monitor, amid a severe haze caused by the fires. Flights were cancelled, galleries were closed to safeguard public health and a large consignment of facemasks was being brought in. In some rural areas police patrolled streets amid reports of looting and break-ins in bushfire-affected areas.

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