Australia to compensate bushfire volunteers

SYDNEY - Volunteer firefighters in Australia will be offered government compensation after spending extended periods fighting bushfires raging across the country, authorities announced Sunday.

Rural Fire Service volunteers who have spent at least 10 days battling blazes in worst-hit New South Wales (NSW) state are immediately eligible for the scheme, which offers payments of up to Aus$300 ($209) per day for a maximum of Aus$6,000 per person.

"While I know RFS volunteers don't seek payment for their service, I don't want to see volunteers or their families unable to pay bills, or struggle financially as a result of the selfless contribution they are making," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"This is not about paying volunteers. It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss."

Morrison said the compensation scheme would be rolled out across other Australian states and territories if local authorities requested that assistance.

"They run their own shows; they know what their challenges are," he said of the state governments.

The scheme -- which applies only to self-employed volunteers and those working for small- and medium-sized businesses -- is expected to cost about Aus$50 million in NSW, which boasts the world's largest volunteer fire service at 70,000 people.

Volunteers who are also government employees were last week granted additional paid leave to help fight the blazes.

Morrison has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks over his response to the bushfire crisis, which has killed 10 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched more than three million hectares (7.4 million acres).

The prime minister was forced to apologize for taking a family holiday to Hawaii as Australia battled the bushfires, a decision that sparked public outrage and prompted street protests. -AFP