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As wildfires rage, Australian PM apologizes for family vacation and defends climate policies

Firefighters battling wildfires in Australia made the most of cooler weather on Sunday to access badly burned towns and contain blazes before the expected return of hotter conditions at the end of the week.

The reprieve came as Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended both his government’s climate change policies and his decision to go on holiday to Hawaii last week.

Morrison visited the Rural Fire Service (RFS) headquarters in Sydney after returning on Saturday night from a family vacation in Hawaii that drew sharp criticism as the wildfires crisis deepened.

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After the deaths of two firefighters on Thursday night, Morrison announced he would return home early, and on Sunday he acknowledged his holiday had caused anxiety.

“I get it that people would have been upset to know that I was holidaying with my family while their families were under great stress,” Morrison said.

Nearly 100 fires were still burning across New South Wales late on Sunday afternoon, though none were rated as emergencies.

The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. Around 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land has burned nationwide during a torrid past few months, with nine people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.

The devastation has reignited debate on whether Morrison’s conservative government has taken enough action on climate change.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.

Morrison said there was no argument that there is a link between climate change and weather events around the world but said it was not credible make a direct connection to any single fire event and climate change.

Earlier this month, Australia drew criticism at a United Nations summit in Madrid for its policy of using old carbon credits to count toward future emissions targets.

Australia has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, but critics accuse his conservative Liberal-National coalition of a lack of action on the issue.

Morrison on Sunday re-committed to those policies, which he took to a general election in May.