Wildfires spread across Lebanon as government is accused of neglect

Wildfires spread across Lebanon as government is accused of neglect
Lebanese firefighters were desperately trying to put out hundreds of forest fires on Tuesday as the government faced accusations of neglecting the capabilities of the country’s Civil Defence.
3 min read
15 October, 2019
Huge blazes broke out across Lebanon [Twitter]

Lebanon has turned to its neighbours for help with battling forest fires that have ravaged homes and killed a volunteer firefighter in the Mediterranean country, the premier said on Tuesday.

"We have contacted the Europeans who will send means of help," Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in comments carried by national news agency NNA.

Firefighters in Lebanon were desperately trying to put out at least 103 forest blazes raging across the country on Tuesday, as fires which started on Monday morning in the Chouf area of central Lebanon spread rapidly overnight.

One volunteer firefighter, identified as 32-year-old Salim Abu Mujahed, died as a result of a heart attack while trying to put out the fires in his hometown, Betater, in the Chouf mountains.

At least 180 people have been injured in the fires, The New Arab's Arabic-language site reported.

The Lebanese Red Cross also said that four people had been injured in the village of Qerna al-Hamra in central Lebanon. The television channel NBN tweeted video showing the fires surrounding the village.

In an area south of Beirut, firefighters have for two days been unable to stop the blaze, which has burnt four homes to the ground and caused dozens to suffer from breathing difficulties, NNA said.

The Director-General of the Lebanese Civil Defence, Raymond Khattar, said that 200 vehicles from the Civil Defence were working to put out the fires, with the assistance of the army.

Two planes provided by Cyprus were also fighting the fires on Tuesday morning, while Civil Defence teams worked to put out blazes which reached residential areas.

Lebanese Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan tweeted that she had chaired a meeting of a disaster response committee, and that Greece would also be sending helicopters. Jordan would also be sending assistance, she said.

Dry conditions and strong winds helped the fires spread and videos showed residents fleeing their homes in terror.

"We're speaking of many square kilometers; the fire was jumping from hill to hill due to the high winds," Khattar told the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star.

Read also: Palestinian Civil Defence helps stop spread of raging wildfires across Lebanon

A resident of the Metn area told Lebanese journalists, "We woke up at 4:30 and the world was red".

"The fire was going over the building," a member of the Civil Defence said.

Lebanese Environment Minister Fad Jreissati said that the country would be at risk of further fires over the next three days. He also said that some of the fires may have been deliberately started.

"At some point we have to execute people who set fires," he said.

The Lebanese government has faced criticism for the spread of the fires, with three army Sikorsky helicopters - specialised in fighting fires - out of action due to a lack of funding for maintenance, The Daily Star reported.

Read more: Investment alone won’t rescue Lebanon’s broken economy

The helicopters were acquired by Lebanon in 2009 but had ceased functioning five years ago. They can carry 4,000 litres of water, while the Lebanese army were using helicopters which can only carry 700 litres in their efforts to fight the fires.

Elie Mahfoud, the head of the opposition Taghyir (Change) Movement tweeted, "Our voices have become hoarse telling this government to set up a ministry for disasters and emergencies, but we can't expect any achievements from a state which won't even invest in its basic institutions like the Civil Defence."

This story was updated with comments from Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as reports from the south of Beirut.  

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