Scorching Syria suffers deadly fires as drought, bombardment and desperate poverty add fuel to the flames
Fires have been breaking out across northwest Syria with worrying frequency in the approach to summer, similarly to last year and the year before, leaving a trail of devastation, cutting lives short, and causing massive damage to property.
This is in the wake of rising temperatures, the use of alternative and often makeshift cooking appliances, and other factors, which are leading to ever more frequent – and fatal – fire outbreaks.
The Forest and Fire Monitoring Platform (FIRMO) predicted that wildfire season in Syria would arrive early this year due to worrying weather trends in the factors that influence wildfire likelihood – temperature, humidity and wind – which have negatively impacted vegetation coverage in the country, with ongoing drought has led to a reduction in Syria's forest cover.
Another factor in the increased fire outbreaks is poverty. Displaced Syrians in northwest Syria are living in destitute conditions with the majority unable to find work, and if they do, wages are low, and prices high. This has left most unable to secure their basic needs, and many are resorting to using alternative, makeshift cooking equipment – which is having deadly consequences.
"Faten had been using the rudimentary stove in front of the tent because her husband couldn't afford cooking gas"
On 5 April 2022, sisters Rand (3) and Hala (5) died when their tent went up in flames in Qah camp in north Idlib after a primitive cooking stove caught fire close to the tent. The fire consumed the tent in seconds. Their distraught mother, Faten Tawil (44) says she was unable to save the girls: "The fire was faster than me and my efforts to get them out of the tent, it turned to ashes in an instant."
Faten had been using the rudimentary stove in front of the tent because her husband couldn't afford cooking gas – the price of one gas cylinder has risen to $13.50 which most in the IDP camps can't afford. The grieving mother thought using the makeshift cooker, fuelled with whatever she could find – from plastic bags to old shoes – would allow her to provide her family with some of their basic needs, despite their poverty. She never expected her 'solution' would end up causing a blazing inferno leading to the deaths of her beloved girls.
In another tragic incident, baby Mulhim Hamido died and his father was badly burned when their tent caught fire after the kerosene stove the family used to cook (as an alternative to gas) exploded.
Mariam Hamido (20), Mulhim's cousin, says that the low-quality fuels they were using to light the stove caused it to explode when the baby was close by. He was rushed from the camp, near Salqin, to a Turkish hospital, but died two days later.
The Syrian Response Coordinators Group reported fire outbreaks in eight camps in northern Syria in June alone. This raised the total number to 92 fires so far in 2022. The group explained that the dense overcrowding of IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the confined camp areas posed a risk to life due to the increased risks generated by such crammed conditions.
They called on humanitarian organisations to set-up firefighting stations in all the camps, in addition to appointing specialised personnel trained to deal with fires and reduce the likelihood of injuries.
Their report emphasised the necessity of building housing units for IDPs with appropriate materials (like brick and cement) for withstanding different weather conditions and camp circumstances (where primitive stoves are used for cooking and heating and solar panels with cables and batteries for electricity). They stressed they should also be built close to towns or cities so as to be in easy reach of essential services including fire brigades.
"Their report emphasised the necessity of building housing units for IDPs with appropriate materials (like brick and cement) for withstanding different weather conditions and camp circumstances (where primitive stoves are used for cooking and heating and solar panels with cables and batteries for electricity)"
However, the fire outbreaks across northwest Syria aren't just happening in the camps; deadly fires have also broken out in dozens of commercial facilities, such as shops and gas stations, across the region.
On 7 March 2022, Maher Al-Tnnary (13), originally from Maarat Al-Numan, was killed and another person injured, when a fire erupted in a fuel store in Sarmada city in north Idlib. Karmo Sabbagh (36) owns a shop close to the store. He said the fire started after an explosion in the fuel store where Maher worked. The teenager worked to support his family who lived in the Mashhad Ruheen camp in north Idlib.
Karmo said the flames spread so rapidly no one dared to intervene – leaving the fire raging until a Syria Civil Defence team (also known as the White Helmets) arrived and extinguished the fire. By then nothing remained of the child except a charred body.
White Helmets' members who have turned up to fight the flames have not been safe either. A volunteer of seven years Amar Amin (50) was crushed when part of a paper tissue factory collapsed on top of him, in Sarmin, in eastern Idlib. He was battling alongside his team to extinguish a fire which broke out there on 28 January 2022.
Fire outbreaks are also a major risk in oil markets and at fuel refineries. In 2021 huge fires broke out at an oil market in Al-Hamaran village in Jarabulus region, as well as at refineries in Tarhin village and Al-Bab. Several civilians died in the blaze, as well as one White Helmet's volunteer who was killed while trying to subdue the flames.
As temperatures rise and crops ripen, fires have also devoured hundreds of dunums of farmland, laying waste the efforts of farmers who have been desperately waiting for harvest season. Crises are compounding – even as bread prices rise, the area of land suitable for cultivation is decreasing due to increasing water scarcity, and increased control by Assad's forces over the area.
Farmer Suleiman Al Ahmad (47) casts a grief-stricken gaze over what remains of his crop. In May 2022, his fields, near Maarat Al-Naasan village, were decimated by a fire which broke out on his land. His aspirations to ease the difficult living conditions he and his family endure were laid to waste alongside his crop.
Suleiman had spent vast sums preparing and planting his fields with wheat, believing he would make back double when harvest time came. Instead, he lost everything. He doesn't know what sparked the fire, but rules out any foul play, as he has "no enemies," he says.
Shadi Hassan, who leads a division in the Syrian Civil Defence, says the main cause behind increasing fire outbreaks on agricultural land is deliberate bombing by the regime and Russian forces. This is especially true, he says, of areas where wheat and barley are growing, as they are monitoring these areas and want to deprive civilians of the crops.
"As temperatures rise and crops ripen, fires have also devoured hundreds of dunums of farmland, laying waste the efforts of farmers who have been desperately waiting for harvest season"
He added that the spread of unexploded ordnance left after bombing raids over the past years and the spread of 'heat reflectors' such as shards broken glass in fields, are also contributing to fire outbreaks. Another reason is people's failure to abide by basic guidance for avoiding fire outbreaks, such as not throwing cigarette butts near cultivated areas, or burning part of the wheat crop to prepare freekeh. Added to this are the weather conditions, with the drought and the significant rise in temperatures this year.
Shadi also blamed the recklessness of some for causing fires, with actions like lighting cooking stoves inside tents, and failing to ensure electrical cables which connect solar panels with batteries (used by many camp residents) had no bare wire exposed, so as not to emit any sparks which could start fires.
He said that children needed to be stopped from playing with anything that could cause a fire, and flammable items must not be left close to tents. Careless actions like the above were among the main reasons leading to fires in the flammable canvas tents, he explained, remarking that it took no more than 50 seconds for a tent to be totally engulfed by a fire.
There's an elephant in the room in the Middle East, and that's the coming climate change crisis. @thistabithahope talks on Syria, Iraq and the drought plaguing the countries as the crucial Euphrates river slowly dries up https://t.co/eDSgKBYn3E— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) December 21, 2021
Shadi explained that the White Helmets had plans in place to ensure fire brigades were well distributed and one would be close at hand to all the farming areas to facilitate swift access if a fire broke out, especially with the onset of summer. However, one major issue the firefighters have is that when the regime and Russian forces start a fire by shelling an area, they keep monitoring that area and will conduct repeat bombings to prevent White Helmets firefighters from reaching the fire, which leads to its spread.
In forested areas, "our teams face difficulty in reaching wildfires due to the rugged and uneven terrain and we are unable to bring our equipment to these areas so our teams rely on handheld equipment to put the fires out," he said, adding, "our teams also face difficulty accessing fires in camps due to the severe overcrowding, rough roads, and how quickly the fires spread through the canvas tents."
Regarding preventative measures the Syrian Civil Defence has put in place to help avert fire breaking out in the first place, Shadi says they have fire awareness teams who regularly hold workshops to raise awareness in camps, gas stations and farms, where they speak about fire hazards and demonstrate ways to put fires out.
The firefighting units are also undergoing training and increasing their firefighting skills, and are educating civilians continuously on the need alert them immediately if a fire breaks out because the quicker they arrive, the easier it will be to control.
Since the start of 2022, firefighting brigades from the White Helmets have responded to over 450 fires in northwestern Syria, says Shadi, in which 11 people died, including seven children, and the Syrian Civil Defence have rescued over 45 people.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko