Beirut, Lebanon — Fires raged across forests innorthern and southern Lebanon late Tuesday and Wednesday for the second time ina month, prompting government officials to question whether the devastatingblazes were the result of arson. Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa said onWednesday during a news conference at the Grand Serail in Beirut that theconditions under which “these fires have appeared have raised hugequestions.”
However, Sabaa refused to identify anypossible suspects, saying that he would not comment on the matter until policereports are finalized.
According to a report issued by theLebanese Army on Wednesday, the fires engulfed forests around several towns andvillages across the country, including Nabatieh, Jwaya, Khiam, Kfar Kila andJezzine in the South, Barja and Ras al-Metn in the Chouf, and Amshit and Hamatin the Mount Lebanon Governorate, as well as the northern regions of Akkar andDinnieh.
Residents of Ain al-Sammak, a small townin Dhour al-Shoueir, said they witnessed a group of armed individuals set fireto the mountainous region. They said the group later opened fire at thetownspeople who tried to put out the fire.
Suspects have been taken in forquestioning by the authorities, who have heard the testimonies of thetownspeople, Sabaa told reporters.
“Reports on the first flamesindicate that the fires were intentionally set,” Sabaa said.
Sabaa did not identify the suspects, nordid he say what may have motivated them to ignite the flames.
Some 5,000 men from Civil Defense, thearmy, and the Internal Security Forces pooled their efforts to extinguish theblazes across the country.
The army used helicopters to pour wateron the fires. However, their efforts were hampered by strong winds and dryconditions, which helped to spread the flames.
Cyprus has so far sent one water-dumpinghelicopter to aid the army. Also, Civil Defense has rented water tanks from theprivate sector to keep their water supply flowing.
Firefighters also had to contend withmountainous terrain which made it difficult for trucks to reach affected areas.An official told AFP that the town of Aito was the hardest to reach because of alack of roads leading to the area.
George Abu Mousa, head of fire operations,said the fires are too big for Lebanon to handle by itself. “We areunderstaffed,” he told The Daily Star.
Although there were no immediate reportsof casualties, the fires are likely to deal another blow to the environment, aswell as the state’s coffers.
“The costs of extinguishing thesefires are enormous, and they eat away at the government’s budget” said AbuMousa.
Fires earlier this month burned 2,500hectares of forest. Replanting the forests is expected to cost $10 million,according to a report by the Association of Forest Development and Conservation(AFDC).
The AFDC report said forest fires inLebanon are mainly caused by climatic conditions: prolonged hot summers, lack ofwater and strong winds.
“Also, the general public throughtheir lifestyle or livelihood activities, is a key initiator of forestfires,” mainly due to the clearing of agricultural fields using fire, itsaid.
The Lebanese Environment Party (LEP) saidin a statement on Wednesday that a council of firefighters had been formed in2001 with a set strategy to combat future blazes.
The group criticized the government forfailing to put the emergency plan into use.
They also called for an investigation ofthe responsible government bureaus over what they called “carelessness.”
The LEP suggested setting up watch towersand water tanks in fire-prone areas in the mountains – a step it said would costless than the loss of Lebanon’s natural resources.