Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised for going on holiday in Hawaii this week while the nation’s bushfire crisis worsened.
Fires are raging across the nation amid a heatwave which has produced the nation’s two hottest days on record.
Two volunteer firefighters died in a road accident on Thursday while deployed to a huge blaze near Sydney.
Mr Morrison said he would end his leave early. His absence this week has drawn condemnation and protests.
“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” he said on Friday.
Australia’s bushfire emergency has killed eight people, destroyed more than 700 houses and scorched millions of hectares since September.
More than 100 fires broke out in South Australia amid “catastrophic” conditions on Friday, while New South Wales (NSW) is bracing for similar conditions on Saturday.
Mr Morrison was widely criticised after reports emerged that he was away on unannounced leave and rumoured to be in Hawaii.
Phrases such as #WhereisScoMo, #WhereTheBloodyHellAreYou – a reference to a famous tourism campaign he once oversaw – and #FireMorrison quickly trended online.
Criticism grew as a heatwave broke records across the country and exacerbated mammoth blazes, making the task even harder for exhausted firefighters – many of them volunteers.
Government ministers defended Mr Morrison’s break as “appropriate”, but refused to confirm his whereabouts. His office told the BBC and others that reports he was in Hawaii were “incorrect”.
On Friday, he confirmed to radio station 2GB that he was in Hawaii with his family. He added he had been receiving regular updates on the fires and last week’s New Zealand volcano disaster, which killed at least 11 Australians.
“Given the most recent tragic events, I will be returning to Sydney as soon as can be arranged,” he said in a statement.
It came after the NSW Rural Fire Service said it was mourning the deaths of firefighters Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36.