Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison received a hostile reception on Thursday when visiting the small town of Cobargo in the country’s southeastern state of New South Wales, which has been devastated by wildfires.
Morrison was ultimately forced to cut short his meeting with locals after he was continuously heckled by angry residents.
A father and son, identified as Robert and Patrick Salway, died earlier this week after a wildfire tore through Cobargo on Monday, destroying homes, businesses and livestock.
“How come we only had four trucks to defend our town? Because our town doesn’t have a lot of money but we have hearts of gold, prime minister,” one woman can be heard yelling in video footage of the prime minister’s visit.
In a particularly awkward moment, Morrison can be heard saying, “How are you?” as he approaches one woman and attempts to shake her hand. When she appears to refuse, he then takes her hand and starts shaking it.
Video shows the woman attempting to confront Morrison further, but she is blocked from doing so by another man.
“We need more help,” she says as the prime minister walks away.
In the New South Wales town of Quaama, video shows a firefighter appearing to refuse to shake hands with Morrison.
Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he acknowledged people were feeling upset after their lives had been shattered.
“I understand the very strong feelings people have, they’ve lost everything, and there are still some very dangerous days ahead,” Morrison said. “My job is to ensure that we steady things through these very difficult days and support the states in the response that they are providing.”
Morrison has faced intense criticism for taking a vacation to Hawaii while the wildfires spread around the country, and critics have questioned whether his conservative government is doing enough to tackle the climate crisis.
On Thursday, Australia’s military began evacuating thousands from the country’s east coast, which has been the hardest hit by wildfires.
An Australian navy carrier was preparing to evacuate up to 4,000 people trapped in the state of Victoria by rapidly advancing fires.
At least 17 people have been killed since the fires started in October and another 17 are reported missing, according to Australian officials. More than 1,400 homes and buildings have been destroyed, and roughly five million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned nationwide.
Authorities say nearly 400 homes have been destroyed on New South Wales’ southern coast and at least eight people have died this week in the state and in neighbouring Victoria, where more than 200 fires are currently burning.
Fires have also been raging in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania.
Dozens of Canadian firefighting experts have arrived in Australia to help battle the deadly fires. More than 60 wildfire specialists from across the country have flown out to help and will be stationed in Queensland and New South Wales.
— With files from the Associated Press