Australians protest over climate change policy as bushfires rage

SYDNEY, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Thousands of Australians took to the streets on Friday to protest against government inaction on climate change, as bushfires ravage large swathes of the country, incinerating wildlife and polluting the air.

The bushfire crisis has added pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government to do more to combat climate change after Australia weakened its commitment to the U.N. Paris climate accord last year.

Friday's demonstrations came as authorities urged nearly a quarter of a million people to flee their homes and prepared military backup as soaring temperatures and erratic winds fanned bushfires across the east coast.

Major roads in Sydney were blocked as protesters chanted "ScoMo has got to go," referring to Morrison, while others held posters that read, 'There is no climate B' and 'Save us from hell'.

There were similar protests in Canberra, the capital, and Melbourne where air quality turned so noxious this month that the two cities featured among places with the most polluted air on earth.

In Melbourne, huge crowds braved heavy rain and a sharp drop in temperature to come out with placards, shouting "Phase Out Fossil Fools," "Fire ScoMo" and "Make Fossil Fuels History”.

But Morrison has repeatedly rejected any criticism that his government is not doing enough. On Friday, he told Sydney radio 2GB that it was disappointing that people were conflating the bushfire crisis with Australia's emission reduction targets.

"We don't want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia," he said.

Friday's protests stirred controversy, with Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews saying they were wrongly timed and would divert police resources.

"Common sense tells you that there are other times to make your point," he told a televised briefing.

"I respect people's right to have a view, I tend to agree with a lot of the points that are being made - climate change is real - but there is a time and a place for everything and I just don't think a protest tonight was the appropriate thing."

Teacher Denise Lavell said she attended the protests in Sydney because she believed the pleas were only a tactic to keep people from protesting.

"Our country is burning, our planet is dying and we need to show up," she told Reuters.

Climate scientists have warned the frequency and intensity of the fires will surge as Australia becomes hotter and drier.

Australia has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius since records began in 1910, NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel said this week.

"This makes heat waves and fires more likely," she said on Twitter. "There is no explanation for this - none - that makes sense, besides emissions of heat-trapping gases."

(Reporting by Swati Pandey and Paulina Duran in Sydney and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)