Kurdistan at risk of grass fires

Kurdistan at risk of grass fires

By Salam Abdulqadir

The Kurdish Globe, 7 August 2010

Iraq — Firemen fighting a tough battle to keep mountain villages fire-free

Long dry spells and high summer temperatures are no help in taming wildfires in Kurdistan’s mountains.

Sharbazher Mountains suffered tremendously from a grass fire last week. Thousands of wild shrubs, bushes, and fruit trees dried up as flames quickly spread. These mountains east of Suleimaniya are only one of several places in Kurdistan Region that have witnessed similar fires recently.

A farmer stands at the edge of his orchard,
looking on with grief at a young plum tree
 dried out by the grass fire.
 GLOBE PHOTO/Salam Abdulqadir

In the mountains of Kurdistan, grasses grow in winter and early spring, and go dry in summer as the rain stops and temperatures rise. This makes them vulnerable to fire, especially for this year; it was rain-rich and, of course, much and more grasses.

Khmana was one of the affected villages in Sharbazher. Last week, fire swept across the mountain just behind the village and left behind many dried out trees. One house on the slope of the mountain survived the fire because its owner, Qadir Rasheed Khmanaie, killed grass around the house in the early spring with herbicide.

Khmanaie, 68, said he ran to the opposite mountain immediately after he saw a huge fire rapidly approaching his house. “It was swiftly spreading to other areas,” he said. His house is in the middle of his orchard, which is mostly vine trees, on the side of the mountain. He lost 400 fruit trees out of 2,000 in the fire. “I have been working so hard to grow these trees. I have been watering them by hand. It is for almost 18 years I have been busy with this.”

Last week on Friday, fire started in the area but soon the Chwarta Fire Brigade arrived. “Local people, police, and Peshmarga members have all helped us,” said Muhammad Karim Ghafur, a high-ranking officer in the brigade. “We used axes to cut branches from the trees and used them to put out the fire. We controlled it finally.”

A few hours later, fire erupted again–but this time from three directions. It was this time that it went out of control and burned down a vast area including the adjacent areas of Chwarta, a small town in Sharbazher Mountains.

The brigade lost one fireman in the operation and three more were injured. “We believe that he died of smoke inhalation. He went forward and suddenly he was surrounded by fire.”

Heavy wind on that day spread the fire. Khmanaie mentioned that he was shocked by the speed of the fire as it so quickly burned one place after another. Apart from that, other things that make it hard to control fire in the mountains are lack of roads and underground mines, added Ghafur. Large areas in Kurdistan have not yet been cleared from the mines placed during the regime of Saddam Hussein. “The only practical thing to use to control fire in such places is firefighting helicopters,” Ghafur said.

But Khmanaie was thinking how to avoid such devastation next year. He said that he would use herbicide all around his orchard. “I need about 20 litres of that liquid next year. But unfortunately it is not cheap for me,” he said.

The cause of the fire is unknown. “We certainly know that high temperature in this area is not the direct cause of the fire,” said another officer in the Chwarta Fire Brigade. Although Ghafur did not rule out the fire being deliberately set, he said that sometimes people make fire for their own purposes and nearby areas are affected.

Undoubtedly, a long dry spell and severe summer heat add to the fire quickly spreading, especially on windy days. Similarly, in many others parts of Kurdistan grass fire has so far caused huge devastations to crops, fruit trees, wild bushes, and forests.

Local news agencies reported two weeks ago that fire badly damaged crops and pastures of seven villages in the Choman area located northeast of Erbil. In their attempt to control it, three firemen and several people who helped them were injured. Others were taken to the hospital. It is estimated that in that single fire, 500 hectares of crops and fruit trees were burned.

In another accident last week, grass fire blocked the main road between Suleimaniya and Dukan for awhile. Heavy smoke reduced visibility to a point that drivers had to use other roads. The road goes through mountains and in some areas trees and bushes are just on the sides of the road.

It is worth mentioning that livestock in Kurdistan is largely dependent on the pastures in the mountains, plateaus and other places that grow during the rainy seasons and continue to be a big source of hay for the farmers.

According to a statement released by the Suleimaniya Forest Police Department, in one week alone last month, 14 grass fires occurred in the province resulting in the destruction of about 1,500 hectares of crops, trees, and shrubland.

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