Lebanese officials learn from U.S. firefighting efforts

Lebanese officials learn from U.S. firefighting efforts

9 January 2009

published by www.pe.com

Lebanon/USA — Southern California has become famous for its wildfires — world-renowned, even.

After battling some of the world’s largest wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire are helping the government of Lebanon learn from firefighting efforts in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Inland Southern California and the Middle Eastern nation have similar environments, and both must work with multiple agencies to protect forests. Lebanon also faces many of the same challenges posed by drought and access to drinking water.

As part of the international collaboration, a delegation of Lebanese environmental and defense officials began a five-day tour Friday with a briefing in Riverside that covered resources, weather patterns and the region’s geography.

Lebanon, a country the size of Vermont, is working to regroup after devastating wildfires tore through the nation’s forests in 2007, burning more than 9,000 acres.

“It’s just our first day, but we’re really seeing many things that show we’re behind,” said Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, general director of the Lebanese Association for Forests, Developments and Conservation. “Forest fires were not a priority for our government, but 2007 was a turning point for us. There’s been no national strategy.”

U.S. Forest Service officials visited Lebanon in August. They assessed the landscape and Lebanese fire operations to determine how to lend aid and training, said Ashley Netherton, Middle East program specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Lebanese officials said one of their biggest challenges is coordinating local and federal resources to communicate, which is an issue California fire officials have also tackled. In the past 30 years, fire agencies in the state have formed a mutual aid pact that allows each agency and region to share information and resources.

“We’re able to share our history and recognize that in the 1970s, we were in the same place they are now,” Netherton said.

Lebanon’s forests cover about 13 percent of the country and are about half the size of the San Bernardino National Forest, which stretches from Big Bear to Idyllwild. Lebanon’s Mediterranean geography and climate are similar to Southern California’s, including mountainous terrain and strong desert winds that can fuel flames.

The Lebanese delegation came from the country’s civil defense, air force and environment ministries. The tour will continue today in the San Bernardino Mountains communities, including past burn areas. The visitors will also see a U.S. Forest Service airfield and conclude at the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara.

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