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Iran 'likely' downed plane with 176 people aboard, & more in News in 5.

— With AAP.

1. Iran ‘likely’ downed plane with 176 people aboard, say US officials

A Ukraine airliner that crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard, was most likely brought down accidentally by Iranian anti-aircraft missiles, US officials say.

One US official said that according to satellite data, the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800 bound for Kiev was airborne for two minutes after departing Tehran when the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.

That was quickly followed by an explosion in the vicinity of the plane, the official said. Heat signature data then showed the plane on fire as it went down.

Iran’s head of civil aviation was quoted by ISNA News Agency as saying that it was “impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane”.

Two US officials said Washington believed the downing of the plane, which occurred at a time of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, was accidental.

An Iranian report on Thursday cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.

US President Donald Trump said on Thursday the deadly crash could have been a mistake and he did not believe it was a mechanical issue.

Watch: Mike Pompeo on last week’s assassination of general Qassem Soleimani, believed to have triggered tensions between Iran and the west. Post continues after video.

Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment on Thursday, as did the Pentagon.

Boeing is still reeling from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX planes in five months that led to the plane’s grounding in March 2019.

2. Erratic bushfire behaviour predicted in NSW

Authorities have warned hot, dry and windy conditions could cause “erratic” bushfire behaviour with total fire bans in place for much of NSW.

The Rural Fire Service has placed total fire bans on 10 regions across the state on Friday ahead of forecast hot and windy weather.

An extreme fire warning is in place for the southern slopes while severe fire warnings have been issued for the Monaro alpine region, ACT, southern ranges and eastern Riverina.

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A southwesterly wind change is expected to impact inland fires on Friday afternoon with a gusty southerly change forecast to impact coastal towns from the evening, the RFS said in a statement on Thursday.

“These conditions will make fire behaviour erratic and dangerous,” the RFS said.

Temperatures are forecast to reach 46C in central NSW, 43C at Tumut in the Riverina, 42C at Penrith in western Sydney and 36C at Nowra on the South Coast.

Total fire bans in place in north western NSW, greater Sydney, central ranges, the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, southern ranges, far south coast, Monaro alpine, southern slopes, eastern Riverina and northern Riverina.

NSW fire crews took advantage of cooler conditions this week by backburning and strengthening containment lines before the forecast heat.

Favourable conditions this week have helped energy crews restore power to most South Coast and Southern Highlands communities where bushfires caused widespread damage over the weekend.

Authorities, meanwhile, have confirmed that 1870 NSW homes have been destroyed since the start of the fire season, with more than 750 damaged.

More than 950 have been confirmed destroyed in 2020 alone.

Almost 200 facilities and 3774 outbuildings have also been razed.

Since July, 20 people have died in the NSW bushfires, as well as 6200 livestock and millions of wild animals.

More than 130 fires were burning across the state early on Friday – with nearly half uncontained.

3. Queen demands “workable solution” for Prince Harry and Meghan’s future roles

The Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William have ordered their teams to find a “workable solution” for Prince Harry and Meghan’s future roles within the royal family.

A Buckingham Palace source says the senior royals have asked aides to work “at pace” with governments and Harry and Meghan’s household, and an outcome was expected to take “days, not weeks”.

It comes after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex released a bombshell statement on Wednesday saying they would be “stepping back” as senior royals.

The Queen and other members of the family were said to be left “hurt” by Harry and Meghan’s decision to issue a personal statement, which outlined their future lives as financially independent royals who will divide their time between the UK and North America.

harry-meghan
Image via Getty.
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The PA news agency understands the royal family will talk to multiple governments, which suggests US and Canadian officials may be involved.

It appears the head of state tried to forestall any announcements after her grandson asked to meet at her private Sandringham estate, the Evening Standard newspaper reported, only to be "ignored" by the couple.

The latest developments reveal the divisions within the heart of the British monarchy, which has already been rocked by Prince Andrew's disastrous television interview about his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Harry and Meghan went ahead and released their personal statement on Wednesday evening, which was a "bolt from the blue" for Buckingham Palace, sources told the PA news agency.

The statement - and a new official Sussexroyal.com website - have thrown up important questions about funding for the couple's round-the-clock security, media access to their royal events and how they will pay for their future lifestyles.

A series of commentators have strongly criticised their decision, with public relations and crisis consultant Mark Borkowski saying "it does feel like a royal couple in exile".

It is already known the Queen, Prince Charles and other senior royals were not consulted about the content of the couple's statement or knew it was to be issued.

The Standard said Charles and William only received it 10 minutes before it was released.

Over the festive period, the newspaper stated Charles told his son to come up with a thought-out plan for his wish to spend more time in Canada and America.

When Harry put forward a draft proposal he was told time was needed to consider its implications, particularly funding.

The Queen agreed to Harry's request to meet when he returned from Canada but the duke was told his grandmother would not discuss his proposals before he had talked them through with his father.

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4. Mining magnate donates $70m to fire relief

The prime minister has stressed the need for the "extraordinary" donations flowing in for bushfire recovery to be coordinated and directed into the right areas.

Mining magnate Andrew Forrest on Thursday pledged $70 million, the biggest individual donation to date from big names in Australian entertainment, business and sport.

And while millions roll in from the rich and famous, smaller donors from around the world are collectively making the biggest impact to the fundraising drive.

Among the many fundraising initiatives, the Red Cross has received more than $30 million in donations, comedian Celeste Barber's campaign has raised over $40 million and the Victorian Bushfire Appeal has more than $15 million.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised the "tremendous" and "simply extraordinary" generosity of everyone who's contributed to the bushfire relief.

"It's important we work hard to best channel and coordinate that support into the areas of greatest need," he told reporters on Thursday.

"It is, I think, important to take advice from both the state and federal agencies about where you can best direct that support."

Local, state and federal governments are all involved in the bushfire recovery along with charities, emergency services and the defence force.

The prime minister said coordination was particularly important when it came to environmental relief.

"There are a lot of organisations that do a lot of fantastic work and we need to try and best align how they're all working together," Mr Morrison said.

"So my simple request to those who are expressing this amazing generosity is to, as far as possible, call it all in and let's get it aligned.

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"Let's all work together on this - that's the key."

Andrew Colvin, who is leading the national bushfire recovery agency, said the last thing he wanted to do was stand in the way of donations.

He has promised to work with Mr Forrest and other donors to ensure their money and resources are tailored to bushfire-affected communities.

"Clearly we're working with these organisations, we're working with these very generous people who are giving time, money, effort, logistics and products," Mr Colvin said.

"We're trying to direct that where we think it is best going to be utilised."

Mr Forrest has promised $10 million to assemble a "volunteer army" of more than 1200 people to help rebuild burnt out towns.

He says the volunteers will be dispatched to authorities and communities across the country who ask for help.

Their travel and accommodation will be covered by the billionaire's Minderoo Foundation.

Another $10 million will be spent in communities in collaboration with charities such as the Australian Red Cross and Salvation Army.

The remaining $50 million will go towards developing a national blueprint for fire resilience.

The federal government has committed at least $2 billion towards the bushfire recovery and established the national agency to coordinate efforts on the ground.

The NSW and Victorian governments have set up similar agencies at a state level.

Mr Forrest founded the Fortescue Metals Group and has interests in cattle stations.

He is worth almost $13 billion and is consistently ranked among the richest Australians.

5. One billion animals have died in fires and the environmental devastation could span decades, says expert

More than one billion animals are thought to have been killed in bushfires across Australia but experts warn the environmental devastation could span decades.

Australian mammal expert Professor Chris Dickman first estimated that half a billion animals had been killed in the bushfires this season, but now believes more than double that figure have perished.

"One billion sounds like a very big number but it's almost certainly an underestimate because of the groups I don't include," the University of Sydney academic told AAP on Thursday.

Bats, frogs and invertebrates haven't been included in the estimate.

Professor Dickman said the bushfires this season have been different because they've come after a long drought.

"They've burnt very quickly allowing less chance for animals to get away, they're burning very intensely and they've covered a much huger area," he said.

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The worst-affected animals would be the "large and slow-moving ones" such as koalas but species with small populations are at risk of imminent extinction, he added.

"We're clearly at risk of losing a significant proportion of biodiversity and because much of Australian biodiversity occurs only here, it's a global loss," he said.

Dr Christine Hosking from the University of Queensland's Global Change Institute said one billion dead animals is a "very reasonable" estimate.

While many animals would have perished in the blazes, many more will die because of a lack of food and the charred, barren landscapes which leave small mammals vulnerable to predators, she said.

"The whole food chain is affected," Dr Hosking told AAP on Thursday.

"These forests will remain empty for quite a long time."

The koala expert believes it could take up to 100 or even 200 years for some forests to completely recover and the ecology will not only be degraded, but changed completely.

"We've got threatened species that may go extinct after this as well," she said.

Dr Hosking called for a national workforce dedicated to protecting the environment during and after disasters such as bushfires.

She said the workforce needs to be separate from those which protect human life and property, instead focused on rehabilitating the nation's biodiversity.

"It's time the environment is put first," she said.

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