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New Year’s fireworks OK’d in Sydney as wildfire risk worsens

PERTH, Australia: Sydney will set off its iconic New Year’s Eve fireworks after being granted an exemption to a total fire ban Monday, with other Australian cities canceling their celebrations due to a worsening wildfire risk.

Pressure had built for Sydney’s spectacle to be scrapped before the New South Wales Rural Fire Service approved the event on Monday. The popular celebrations are expected to attract around a million people to Sydney’s famous harbor front and generate 130 million Australian dollars ($91 million) for the state’s economy. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide watched last year’s display on television.

Australia’s most populous state has bore the brunt of wildfires that have killed 10 people and razed more than 1,000 homes across the country in the past few months. Of the 97 fires burning across New South Wales on Monday, 43 were not yet contained. A total fire ban was in place in Sydney, Canberra and other places to prevent new wildfires.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service said Monday that the latest fatality is a volunteer firefighter who died near Jingellic. Two other firefighters suffered burns.

Temperatures on Tuesday are expected to hit 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit) in Sydney, with hotter weather in the western suburbs. Thick smoke that has shrouded the city’s iconic landmarks was also expected.

“Hot air is coming out of the center of Australia, it’s particularly dry and then unfortunately conditions are expected to worsen in New South Wales as we head into Tuesday,” Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday that the fireworks should go ahead to show the world Australia’s resiliency.

New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the spectacle should be called off. “The risk is too high and we must respect our exhausted volunteers,” he wrote on social media before the exemption was granted.

The western suburb of Parramatta decided to forego a fireworks display. “Council was not granted an exemption to proceed with its fireworks display, due to the total fire ban in place and a range of associated risks,” Mayor Bob Dwyer said Monday.

In Victoria, Australia’s second-most populous state, out-of-control wildfires were forcing thousands of residents and holidaymakers to evacuate. Melbourne, Victoria’s capital, peaked at 41 C (106 F) on Monday, with areas southwest of the city reaching 44 C (111 F).

Lightning started 16 fires in Victoria overnight. Cooler temperatures were expected to sweep into the state late Monday, but windy conditions and thunderstorms heightened the risk of wildfires spreading.

Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said fires had generated their own thunderstorms, creating “unpredictable and dangerous” conditions.

He said there had been no confirmed loss of properties in the region.

Victoria Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said the worst could be ahead. “This is not yet over. We’re really only halfway through what is ahead of us here,” she said.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital, fireworks were canceled and event organizers said other activities, including live music performances, could also be canceled.

“It is a sensible decision for us not to proceed with the fireworks,” the capital territory’s Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said.

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