Fireworks explode over the Sydney Harbour Bridge during New Year's celebrations in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 1, 2019. Photo by Brendan Esposito/EPA-EFE
Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Sydney officials said fireworks will be held as planned as part of the city's New Year's Eve celebrations despite calls for the spectacle to be scrapped due to worsening fire conditions in the area.
Australia has been battling bushfires during a prolonged fire season that has been exacerbated by an ongoing drought, resulting in at least nine deaths, millions of acres burned and 911 homes destroyed.
Rural Fire Service for Sydney's New South Wales state said Monday that it was battling 97 fires with 43 yet to be contained and the risk of fire will increase from Very High to Extreme for New Year's Eve, prompting total fire bans for 11 areas.
The service warned residents against setting off private fireworks on New Year's Eve in order to help "limit the potential fires developing."
A Change.org petition with over 270,000 signatures is calling for the fireworks event to be canceled and for the money it would have cost to go towards fighting the fires.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said despite the calls to cancel the event it will continue as planned.
"Canceling the fireworks now would bring little practical benefit, but using the event to encourage more donations to the bushfire appeal will," she said via twitter.
In a statement, the City of Sydney said preparations for the event began 15 months ago and that it can't be canceled.
"Cancelling the event would seriously hurt Sydney businesses," it said. "It would also ruin plans for tens of thousands of people from across the country and overseas who have booked flights, hotels and restaurants for New Year's Eve."
The city said in lieu of canceling the event, it has donated $440,400 to support communities impacted by the wildfires and offered staff to aid with the cleanup. It will also use the event to fundraise for the Red Cross Disaster Recovery Fund.
"I appreciate the calls people have made to cancel our New Year's Eve event, but rather than doing that we're using the huge reach of [the event] to encourage people around the world to support the [Red Cross'] important work for helping people who have been affected by disaster," Moore said.
According to the city, more than 1 billion people watch the fireworks show a year and the city's New Year's Eve event generates some $91 million for the state's economy.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he supports the decision to go ahead with the fireworks display.
"On New Year's Eve, the world looks at Sydney," he told reporters. "Every single year. And they look at our vibrancy, they look at our passion, they look at our success. And so in the midst of the challenges that we have, subject to the safety considerations, I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country."
However, not all agreed, with John Barilaro, the deputy premier of NSW, saying the event should be canceled, calling it a "very easy decision" to make.
"The risk is too high and we must respect our exhausted RFS volunteers," he said on Twitter. "If regional areas have had fireworks banned, then let's not have two classes of citizens. We're all in this crisis together."
Sydney's decision comes as Canberra has canceled its New Year's Eve fireworks display due to the worsening conditions and a fire ban.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents and visitors to the tourist area of East Gippsland in Victoria have been ordered to evacuate as three fires burning in the state are likely to affect local communities due to the worsening weather conditions.
"If you're planning on visiting East Gippsland today or Monday, don't do it," said Andrew Crisp, the emergency management commissioner. "If you're already visiting East Gippsland, you need to leave the area today. It is not possible to provide support and aid to all the visitors currently in East Gippsland region."