Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised for taking a family holiday in Hawaii as deadly bushfires raged across large parts of his country, destroying homes and claiming the lives of two volunteer firefighters.
At least 2,000 firefighters are battling dozens of blazes, with international support.
New South Wales is in the middle of a seven-day state of emergency as the fires, encouraged by a ferocious heatwave, rage out of control.
Morrison cut short a trip with his wife and adult children amid public anger at his absence from Australia at a time of national crisis. He spoke to reporters on Sunday while visiting the headquarters of the Rural Fire Service in Sydney.
"If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions," Morrison said. “I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it.”
He added: "But as prime minister, you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism."
Morrison said this was not a time for political point-scoring but a "time to be kind to each other." He said he is not a trained firefighter, “but I'm comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here just simply so I can be here, alongside them, as they are going through this terrible time.”
Morrison also answered critics who say his government has not done enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in the spate of fires burning across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. He said there were also "many other factors" responsible for the unprecedented number of fires during a record-breaking heatwave.
"There is no argument ... about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world," he said. "But I'm sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event — it's not a credible suggestion to make that link."
Rural Fire Service Commission Shane Fizsimmons described Saturday as an "awful day" for firefighters as strong southerly winds fanned more than 100 fires in New South Wales alone.
Dozens of homes have been lost since Thursday in massive wildfires, including the Gospers Mountain blaze that covered more than 460,000 hectares (1.1 million acres). A fire-generated thunderstorm formed over one blaze at Shoalhaven on Saturday, escalating the fire danger.
Thirty firefighters from Canada and nine from the United States were among fresh crews set to join the battle against the fires on Sunday.