The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Forest fires run rampant as state fails to act
Combination of factors lengthens the annual season in which blazes erupt
BEIRUT: This year’s wildfire season has yet to enter its most dangerous months, but experts say a perfect storm of government inaction and changing socio-economic and climactic conditions are setting the stage for longer and more intense blazes.
In addition to countless minor conflagrations, large fires have this year scorched the northern district of Akkar, the Mount Lebanon town of Rashmaya – where the same area of forested land has been devastated by fire three times in the last decade – and the biologically diverse Chouwen and Jabal Moussa regions of Kesrouan, where 100 Civil Defense firefighters and the Lebanese Army battled a blaze for 10 days.
Following a particularly catastrophic fire season in 2007, a local NGO, the Association for Forests Development and Conservation, worked with the Lebanese government to form a National Forest Management Strategy. The strategy’s main outcome was the formation of a joint operations room to bring together the heads of all pertinent ministries and agencies, including the Interior, Agriculture, Environment, Defense and Information ministries, Civil Defense, the Army and the Internal Security Forces.
On May 13, 2009, the strategy was adopted by Cabinet Resolution 52, but, more than eight years later, experts say there is very little to show for it. A Parliamentary National Defense, Interior and Municipalities Committee report on forest fires published in April – at the start of this year’s fire season – revisited the subject and set out a long list of recommendations. This report reiterated the need for a joint operations room, indicating that the current body is ineffective.
NDIMC chair MP Samir Jisr told The Daily Star Monday that he still hoped the report’s findings would lead to fruitful changes, but said that, at this point, he had not seen the report being discussed seriously by ministers, nor had he seen action on its recommendations.
“Trust me, it’s a big effort [to fulfill the recommendations],” Jisr said. “There are over 40 laws which have to be reviewed.”
In addition to attempts to spur meaningful legislative change, more practical efforts to boost Lebanon’s firefighting capacity have been made. Three firefighting Sikorsky helicopters were donated in the past few years to the Lebanese authorities, thanks to $17 million in funds secured by NGOs and the private sector, according Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, AFDC’s director-general and chief technical officer of the Cabinet’s Disaster Risk Management Unit. All three of these helicopters have, however, been out of service for two years due to a lack of spare parts, a military source said.
According to the source, “there is a mechanical problem and I don’t know who is responsible for this issue. We’re not [able to secure] the spare parts.”
The NDIMC report included a recommendation that the Finance Ministry secure funding for the helicopters’ maintenance, which the report puts at $600,000 per year.
According to the report, the Defense Ministry had requested on June 18, 2016 that the Finance Ministry provide $5.2 million in funding, presumably for several years, for the helicopters, but had not received a response. Jisr said that the funding for the helicopters would likely be included in the Army’s 2017 budget.
The finance minister was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him over several days.
According to life-long forest management experts, the Civil Defense – which is tasked with fighting the majority of Lebanon’s wildfires – is vastly understaffed, lacks equipment and is suffering from a decades-long hiring freeze that is still in place today.
“Even if you have a large number of people, firefighting requires huge manpower,” said a Civil Defense source, who chose to remain anonymous. “We need whatever you can think of – I can’t even enumerate [our needs].”
The source added that firefighting was difficult even if you had “hundreds of planes and thousands of men” at hand – pointing to recent wildfires in America that burnt for “months” – let alone for the meager forces at the Civil Defense’s disposal, which he put at around 2000.
The NDIMC report recommends that Cabinet allow the Civil Defense to hire more permanent staff and raise pay for employees. No action has yet been taken on either matter.
With the government making no rapid moves to improve Lebanon’s firefighting capability, experts have warned that climactic conditions and socio-economic changes are extending and intensifying Lebanon’s wildfire seasons.
The fire season would once have been typically expected to last from May or June until October, but George Mitri, the director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at the University of Balamand’s Institute of the Environment, said that the season is now beginning in March and lasts considerably longer.
“The conditions are more favorable for high intensity fires, and we also see the fire season sometimes reaching all the way to December,” Mitri said.
Hicham Salman, coordinator of the AFDC’s nature and conservation programs, explained how climactic changes and human actions have combined to fuel Lebanon’s wildfires.
“We get rain in winter and then we have a long dry season – so all the weeds … that have grown after months of rain dry out in the long summer and become fuel for the fire,” he said.
While Lebanese law forbids the burning of shrubs, grass, straw and other plants in areas less than 500 meters from forested land during the fire season (officially between July 1 and Oct. 13), the law is not generally enforced by the ISF, according to the NDIMC report.
Lebanon’s forests were historically managed by rural communities, Mitri said, and emigration from agricultural land has thus compounded the risk of fire.
“If you go back 50 or 60 years, our elders used to enter into the forests and remove excess wood. They needed it for fuel because gasoline powered heating was not big in those days, so they would produce charcoal, in the process greatly reducing the biomass of the forest,” he said.
“At some point people stopped cleaning, pruning and taking care, and a thick biomass developed. This thick biomass makes any small fire uncontrollable, and this is one reason we are seeing fires in big areas that last for a very long time.”
With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mitri has been able to produce a fire risk assessment that provides a nine-day forecast. The forecast is publicly available and has been circulated to the Civil Defense and various volunteer groups.
Mitri said that Lebanon has a “very well developed strategy, clear objectives, clear roles and responsibilities,” but that the national strategy simply isn’t being implemented.
While ministries flounder with the strategy’s implementation, local volunteer firefighting groups have moved to fill the gaps. Simply equipped and highly motivated, these groups are on the frontline, fighting one of the biggest contributors to Lebanon’s rapid deforestation.
Dima Salman, the head of a volunteer fire-fighting unit in the Mount Lebanon town of Ramlieh, said that the group aimed to intercept fires soon after they ignite, relying on a 50-member WhatsApp group comprised of local residents and a single four-wheel-drive car kitted out with a fire extinguisher.
“[Fire-fighting] is not our main cause, but we’re there when [a fire] happens,” she said.
One of the major limitations of the Civil Defense is their use of fireengines that cannot maneuver into the often steep and densely wooded terrain where many of Lebanon’s wildfires flare up.
The NDIMC report recommends that the ministries of interior and agriculture provide firefighting funding to municipalities on a proportional basis, relative to their fire risk – but funding has mainly been secured from NGOs like the AFDC, or has been gathered on a local basis.
“We are ready to cooperate [with the relevant ministries and municipalities],” Agriculture Minister Ghazi Zeaitar said when asked about funding. “But you know how it is – sometimes we are faced with circumstances out of our control.”