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Scott Morrison announces $1.4B for Australian bushfire relief agency

 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and Australian Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg speak during a press conference regarding the government's bushfire response at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday. Photo by Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE
 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and Australian Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg speak during a press conference regarding the government's bushfire response at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday. Photo by Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE

Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday committed more than $1.4 billion over the next two years to aid with recovery from bushfires ravaging the country's southeast.

"If further funds are required, further funds will be provided," he said during a press conference announcing the plan.

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With the initial money, the federal government will establish the National Bushfire Recovery Agency to coordinate a response to rebuild the communities affected by fires in Victoria and New South Wales, which have been battling devastating blazes for months, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.

The agency will function as a "one-stop shop" to coordinate relief efforts, Morrison said.

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The agency will foster relationships between state, territory and local governments to work with stakeholders in affected communities and ensure those communities have access to support, provide advice and recommendations to the government on the economic and social impacts of the bushfires and develop and coordinate a long-term recovery plan, among other objectives, it said.

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When asked about whether he'd still be able to deliver a government surplus, which had been projected at around $3.4 billion for 2019-2002, Morrison replied a surplus was of no focus to him when lives are at stake.

"What matters to me is the human cost and meeting whatever cost we need to meet," he said.

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The additional roughly $1.4 billion will be on top of the more than $69 million worth of assistance going to families, small businesses and farmers affected by the fires, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.

"Our initial [$1.4 billion] investment help to get communities back on their feet by assisting with restocking and replenishing, rebuilding roads and telecommunications infrastructure, mental health support, attracting tourists back to the regions and helping restore the local environment and impacted wildlife," Frydenberg said.

The fund's announcement follows Morrison deploying the Australian Defense Force Reserve Brigades and the HMAS Adelaide to help battle the blazes that have killed at least 24 people, destroyed more than 1,700 homes and burned some 5 million hectares of land.

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It is the first time the country has issued a compulsory Call-Out of the Australian Defence Force Reserve Brigades.

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Morrison also said they have leased four extra waterbombing planes for about $14 million.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Monday that there were over 150 fires across the state but that easing conditions may bring some relief to those fighting the blazes.

"There's even a bit of drizzle happening down here on the south coast," he told reporters and though the rain isn't putting out the fires, "it's certainly a welcome reprieve. It's a psychological relief if nothing else."

He said people can take a reprieve in the weather but they must stay focused because "complacency kills and we've still got a long part of this summer to go."

On Monday, the NSW Police Force announced it had arrested more than 180 people for bushfire-related offenses since Nov. 8, including 40 juveniles, for 205 charges.

While the majority were charged for failing to comply with a fire ban or illegally discarding a lit cigarette, 24 people were charged for deliberately lighting bushfires, it said in a statement.

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