Forest fires scorch woodlands near Beirut

Forest fires scorch woodlands near Beirut

15 October 2008

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Lebanon — Forest fires raging in the Chouf Mountains left three soldiers and a firefighter injured on Tuesday, prompting Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud to declare the village of Dibbiyeh a “disaster area.” Students from the Arab University campus in Dibbiyeh were evacuated as the blaze raged out of control, and witnesses reported that dozens of families were fleeing the area as the military and the fire service battled the flames.

The fire was believed to have started on Monday, but its location on steep mountainsides had prevented the authorities from bringing the blaze under control. By late Tuesday, 24 firetrucks and three helicopters had largely extinguished the blaze, which consumed an estimated 500 hectares of land.

“We put 98 percent of the fires out. There is only one place still burning, and we are doing everything to bring it under control,” Darwish Hobeika, head of the Civil Defense, told The Daily Star on Tuesday evening. “The wind was very strong, so that is why it was difficult to put out the fire,” he added.

Dibbiyeh residents could only watch as flames engulfed the woodland around their village. “This entire area, home to one of Lebanon’s most beautiful forests, has been destroyed,” Rafiq Boustani, who lives in the village, told AFP.

Baroud said that the Civil Defense teams had faced difficulties extinguishing the flames because of a lack of suitably trained firefighting personnel and limited resources. Officials had also warned that unexploded ordnance left in the area was posing an extra threat to the firefighters.

“The area has land mines, so the firefighters need to be careful where they roam,” said Hisham Salman of the Association of Forests, Development and Conservation.

Last October Lebanon was struck by the worst forest fires in decades, with more than 4,000 hectares of woodland destroyed. Officials are keen to avoid a repeat this year, but experts have warned that global warming has left Lebanon more vulnerable to forest fires, noting that fires were raging as early as April this year – a full three months earlier than the traditional “season.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, about 1,200 hectares of forests are burned in the fires annually.

Forest fires in Lebanon are particularly devastating because the woodland is not well adapted to regenerating after being burned, meaning that ancient forests can be destroyed forever. Currently, forests cover about 13 percent of Lebanese territory, 40 percent less than in 1968.

To combat the problem, the Interior Ministry last month threw its weight behind a campaign to raise $25 million needed to buy state-of-the-art firefighting equipment, including helicopters and trucks. Meanwhile the Environment Ministry has stressed the importance of replanting areas where forests have been lost.

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