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Lebanon likely to have another fire season amid major economic crisis: Experts

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In the hills of Mechref, in Lebanon’s forested Chouf district, hillsides full of charred pine trees bear witness to the damaging fires that swept the country last October.

Under some blackened trunks, tiny saplings have sprouted amid the shrubs, ready to replace them. Other areas remain largely barren.

The government’s inability to deal effectively with the fires that swept through Lebanon in 2019 was one of the triggers for the mass protests that broke out on October 17, sparking a movement that continues today.

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Now, as Lebanon heads into another fire season in the midst of a major economic crisis, some fear that the country is again unprepared.

The country has faced increasingly intense fire seasons in recent years and is likely to face another one this year, experts said.

“Lebanon is not prepared to deal with large-scale fires,” George Mitri, director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at the University of Balamand, told Al Arabiya English.

“We are very well prepared to deal with small fires – small numbers of fires and fires at a small scale – but when we are dealing with large scale fires, this is where we don’t have the capacities, either the technical capacities or the human resources [needed],” Mitri explained.

Last year’s fires burned around 2,700 hectares of land, nearly double the country’s annual average of around 1,000 hectares lost to fires, he added.

Civil Defense volunteer Ryan Bachaalany, who joined in fighting the fires in Mechref last year, recalled the scenes of devastation.

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“It was like the movies – I’ve never been in a fire this big,” he told Al Arabiya English. “It was really big and uncontrollable, so people started leaving their homes, running. You couldn’t see anything. It was like an inferno – it really was.”

He added, “The most difficult part was that you knew that you couldn’t do anything … We couldn’t control it, but we did our best. We tried for two days, and luckily on the third day it rained, so we could control it.”

While last year’s blazes may have been an outlier, Mitri said that with increasingly extreme weather patterns, experts have been warning of increased fire risk in Lebanon since 2007. Balamand has developed a fire danger forecast tool and posts a daily fire risk assessment, with a map showing the areas most at risk.

Although Lebanon’s Cabinet adopted a national strategy for forest fire management in 2009, Mitri said, “until present and unfortunately, the strategy has never been implemented.”

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So far, Mitri said, the number of fires and area burned this year has been similar to last year, which, along with a wet winter and summer heat waves, suggest there is high risk of a similarly dangerous fire season. Meanwhile, he added that due to the economic crisis, there has been an exodus from the city to rural areas, meaning there is more human activity and therefore more fire risk in forested areas.

Georges Abou Moussa, head of operations for the Lebanese Civil Defense, said he anticipates that the season will be “the same and maybe worse” compared to last year. While the fire season has already started – a large fire broke out in the bushland around Hermel last month – Abou Moussa said the worst months are typically between mid-September and mid-November.

As to whether the Civil Defense is prepared for another season on par with last year, Abou Mousa said, “We are ready 24-7 for everything,” but he added that the force does not have the equipment and dedicated manpower it needs.

“We need trucks for the forest fires, first of all,” he said. “We have (trucks), but it’s not enough because we have not more than eight, nine vehicles. From the north to the south, it’s not enough.”

And while there are between 2,000 and 3,000 civil defense volunteers throughout the country at any given time, Abou Moussa said the operations also suffer from the lack of a professional force of emergency responders.

According to Abou Moussa, the volunteers “are very ready, they are very professional, they work but sometimes they have their own job and, you know, now the economic situation in Lebanon – this means they need to work to take a salary. Here in the Civil Defense we don’t give them any salary… A professional staff means that you can count on them.”

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During the 2019 fires, many Lebanese were infuriated to learn that three Sikorsky helicopters that had been donated to the government in 2009 for firefighting, after a fundraising effort by a group of private citizens, were out of commission as the government had not been paying to maintain them.

Last month, the Minister of Defense announced that the helicopters had been put up for sale. A spokesman for the Lebanese Army said the Army has eight or nine water tanks of 1.2 cubic meters each that can be used by its own helicopter fleet to fight fires.

However, the Army fleet was not enough to deal with last year’s wildfires on its own. Cyprus and Jordan sent in aircraft to aid in the firefighting.

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Former Minister of the Interior Ziyad Baroud called the decision to sell the helicopters “very sad and disappointing.” Baroud noted that citizens had donated about $14 million for the helicopters. Along with the helicopters, the government got three years of free maintenance and pilot training, he said. After the free maintenance stopped, Baroud said that national airline Middle East Airlines had contributed towards the upkeep one year, but that by 2016, all three had stopped flying due lack of maintenance.

“The reason? The cost?” he said. “Whatever the cost, it is definitely less than that of the smallest fire.”

Mitri said the fire response will be particularly important this year to protect areas that are just beginning to recover from last year’s blazes.

Pointing to a cluster of delicate green seedlings under one burnt tree in Mechref, he said, “We need to avoid any future fire event on this site because if these small seedlings burn, then we don’t have any more the seed bank and we can lose the forest permanently.”