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Australian bushfires: 3,000 reservists to be deployed

An aerial view of a bushfire near Bairnsdale in Victoria's East Gippsland region, Australia, is shown. Photo courtesy of the State Government of Victoria/EPA-EFE
An aerial view of a bushfire near Bairnsdale in Victoria's East Gippsland region, Australia, is shown. Photo courtesy of the State Government of Victoria/EPA-EFE

Jan. 4 (UPI) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday that up to 3,000 reservists will be deployed to help bushfire recovery.

Morrison added that the federal government would invest a further $20 million to lease four new water bomber planes on top of a $26 million investment already committed this year.

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He said two aircraft would arrive within seven days and the other two would be available within two weeks.

"What we need are waterbombers that meet the technical and specific requirements of the deployment in Australia," Morrison said. "It's not a matter of just trying to hustle up some planes somewhere around the world."

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Morrison also announced that Chinook helicopters from Townsville and other military aircraft would assist, and the opening of defense force bases from Adelaide to Brisbane for emergency short-term accommodation.

The Navy's largest amphibious ship, HMAS Adelaide, will sail from Sydney to sit at the coast in case it's required to help with evacuations, he added.

"They will sail this afternoon, they will be located offshore from the fire-affected areas from tomorrow afternoon," Morrison said. "The Adelaide is fully equipped for disaster relief and humanitarian aid, is able to operate helicopters, 400 crew including medical staff," along with around 300 tons of emergency supplies.

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Around 4,000 people, including some 3,000 tourists, had been stranded in the small Mallacoota town in East Gippsland region since they took shelter on beaches as the fire approached on New Year's Eve.

Bushfire evacuees from Mallacoota arrived Saturday in Hastings on Navy ships.

Morrison's office posted a social media video on Twitter outlining the deployment plans.

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"We're calling out up to 3,000 Defense Force Reservists to help in fire-affected areas," it said. "We've also deployed three Australian Navy ships and multiple Defense planes and helicopters to assist the states with the response."

The nationwide bushfire death toll has risen to 23 since September after two people died in a bushfire on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Morrison said deployment in South Australia would focus on that island.

Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said the compulsory call-out of the 3,000 such reservists was historic.

"The government has not taken this decision lightly," Reynolds said. "In fact, it is the first time that reserves had been called out in this way in living memory and, in fact, I believe for the first time in our nation's history."

Reynolds said reservists would be responsible for four key things. First, providing isolated communities life-saving supplies for immediate relief. Second, evacuation assistance to people in isolated communities. Third, assessment and reopening of vital roads. And fourth, assisting fire services with preparation of fire breaks away from the fire fronts.

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Morrison previously received criticism for taking a family vacation in Hawaii amid bushfire crisis in December. He confirmed that scheduled visits to India and Japan later this month have been postponed.

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