Lebanese blame government for blazes

Activists, experts call state’s preparedness a failure in face of seasonal wildfires

People look at burned vehicles after wildfires swept through Damour, south of Beirut, Lebanon October 15, 2019 (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
People look at burned vehicles after wildfires swept through Damour, south of Beirut, Lebanon October 15, 2019
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
A series of fires broke out in several of Lebanon’s mountainous areas on Sunday night, encouraged by high temperatures and strong winds.
The biggest fire was in the village of Mushrif in the Mount Lebanon province, threatening homes and schools. Despite the efforts of at least 15 Civil Defense teams to control them, the flames continued to spread in the village that is home to some 600 people.
Wisam Andraos, a resident of Mushrif, told The Media Line that the fire started at around midnight on Sunday.
“We called the Civil Defense, which by morning started work to stop the fires, but it wasn’t enough. The fires reached three houses and burned some of their outside walls. After that, some of the village’s young men had to help the families, and saved their homes,” he explained.
On Monday, the Civil Defense members received additional support and the fire was declared 80-percent contained.
“If Monday’s effort took place at the beginning of the incident, it would have saved the situation and stopped the fire,” Andraos said, accusing the government of failing to prepare for the fires.
“Their equipment is insufficient and unsuitable, not to mention that they don’t support the Civil Defense staff,” he complained. “I blame the government and whichever minister is responsible for such things in this country.”
Nada Nassef, a Lebanese social-media activist, agreed.
“The situation is really bad, as the fires burned massive green areas and turned them into ash,” she told The Media Line. “The Civil Defense forces aren’t equipped or prepared to contain such fires – although they tried with what they have.”
Nassef said that what was really disturbing was the state’s complacency.
Civil Defense officials said that a total of 105 blazes had broken out across Lebanon in the past 24 hours alone. Some were extinguished, but others are still going. Four Civil defense workers have been injured while fighting the flames.
Lebanon’s interior minister and other officials were said to be closely following the fire operations and had asked Cyprus for two helicopters to help put out the flames. The state had purchased two helicopters to fight fires, but both are out of service because of a lack of maintenance.
“A large part of the fault lies with the state, which isn’t prepared to deal with such situations to the point where it has to ask for help from Cyprus even though it has its own helicopters,” Ali Amin, a Lebanese analyst and journalist, told The Media Line.
Amin noted that people had to leave their homes and institutional facilities were damaged, something that “creates a feeling that the state’s performance is substandard.” He predicted that while the fires will eventually be brought under control, the state will acknowledge no accountability and will make no efforts to learn from the events.
“We have fires every year,” he said, “but the same things happen and the state isn’t ready.”
The fires reached the village of Dibbiyeh in Mount Lebanon, about 18 miles south of Beirut, as well as the mountain town of Nafisa, in the country’s northern Akkar Province. There were separate blazes elsewhere that approached homes, caused the explosion of a high tension line and devastated large areas of olive trees. (In neighboring Syria, huge fires spread on Tuesday morning in the provinces of Homs, Tartus and Latakia.)
Jassem Ajaka, a professor of economics at the Lebanese University, told The Media Line that the losses from the fires would be quite high but could not yet be accurately estimated.
“What is really dangerous now is the continuation of the fires, especially since Lebanon is going through an unprecedented heat wave,” he said.
Ajaka noted that helicopters were being used to fight the fire during the day when the sun was up and the wind was high, which made them less effective.
“The fires are small and pervasive; once they extinguish one, another starts,” he said. “They need to employ certain strategies to control them, which are not available to the Lebanese government.”