SYDNEY: Forecasts of heavy rain offered hope on Tuesday (Jan 14) in the months-long battle to contain Australia's unprecedented bushfires, but smoke lifted pollution levels in the nation's second biggest city to among the worst in the world.
Cool weather over recent days has already given some respite for exhausted firefighters spread out across vast swathes of the country, with some of the biggest blazes now brought under control.
Optimism was further boosted on Tuesday with heavy rain forecast for some of the hotspots in the most populated eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria.
"It's some pretty good news," New South Wales rural fire service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
"We've been talking about it for months now, that January might see the first fall of decent rain, and that looks like what's coming along over the next few days."
READ: ‘The most terrifying day of my life’ - Singaporean zookeeper at centre of dramatic animal rescue during Australia bushfires
"OPEN FOR BUSINESS"
Australia on Tuesday urged international tourists to put aside concerns about raging bushfires after the United States downgraded a travel warning, even as thick smoke disrupted preparations for the Australian Open in Melbourne.
The United States last week warned citizens to exercise increased caution when travelling to Australia due to the fire risks, putting it on the same Level Two advisory as protest-wracked Hong Kong.
In its latest update, the State Department revised the advisory to Level One meaning "exercise normal precautions", though it maintained a Level Two warning for fire-hit areas including New South Wales and Victoria.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the US move amid concerns the fires would damage the tourism industry and the broader economy, saying Australia was "very much open for business".
Australia's tourism industry accounts for more than 3 per cent of the country's A$1.95 trillion (US$1.4 trillion) annual economic output. Americans are among the top visitors.
Dozens of fires however remained out of control and, with many weeks of hot weather still expected throughout Australia's summer, there was no suggestion the crisis would end soon.
Toxic smoke from the blazes also blew overnight into the Victorian capital of Melbourne, which is due to stage the Australian Open tennis tournament next week.
Pollution in Melbourne, which is normally ranked as among the world's most liveable cities, was rated "hazardous", with health authorities warning people to stay indoors.
Practice sessions for world number one Rafael Nadal and some of the other big names in tennis were suspended on Tuesday.
Qualifying rounds for the Australian Open were also delayed for a couple of hours, and the organisers' decision to resume play late on Tuesday morning caused confusion and concern for some players.
Mandy Minella, the world number 140 from Luxembourg, voiced her opposition on Twitter.
"Shocked to see that qualifying matches have started @Australian Open, What about the health of all the people that have to work out there, especially the ballkids?" she tweeted.
Still, the hazy conditions were not expected to last all week in Melbourne, with a change in wind direction and the forecast wet weather over the coming days set to clear the air.
"WHAT CLIMATE CHANGE MEANS"
The bushfires have killed at least 27 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares of land - an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.
Australia endures bushfires every summer. But climate change and a prolonged drought have contributed to the current crisis, with the blazes starting much earlier than normal and lasting for far longer.
Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius recorded in mid-December.
The fires have prompted an outpouring of donations from around the world to help communities and devastated animal populations.
Environmental groups estimate one billion animals have been killed, many of them unique to Australia.
The country's environment minister Sussan Ley has warned that in some areas, koalas may have to be reclassified as endangered.
Morrison's conservative government has faced domestic and international criticism for its handling of the fire threat and its response to climate change.
The prime minister signaled on Sunday the government could raise its targets for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, as long as this did not increase power prices or dent economic growth.
Climate scientists warned that Australia's fires were a harbinger of what was to come for the rest of the world as the planet warmed due to human activity.
"Temperature conditions in Australia are extreme at the moment but they are what we expect to happen on average in a world of three degrees of global warming," said Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research at Britain's Met Office Hadley Centre.
"It brings it home to you what climate change means."