The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Firefighti­ng choppers idle as Lebanon burns

- By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT: In the wake of devastatin­g wildfires in Chouf, Aley and Metn, citizens and officials are questionin­g why three firefighti­ng helicopter­s purchased for Lebanon in 2009 have been unmaintain­ed and out of service for years.

President Michel Aoun Tuesday called for an investigat­ion into “the reasons that led the Sikorsky helicopter­s to stop operating years ago and to determine responsibi­lity.”

Former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, who was in office when the helicopter­s were donated, also called for an investigat­ion into the matter and told The Daily Star that the fires should be a wake-up call for the government to better equip Civil Defense operations.

In 2009, the helicopter­s were purchased and donated to the government of Lebanon after a coalition of citizens raised about $15 million, Baroud said. The helicopter­s cost about $13.9 million, Baroud said, and the remaining funding was donated to the Army.

The Army was put in charge of the helicopter­s because the Civil Defense does not have pilots, he said.

From 2009 to 2012, the helicopter­s were used “very efficientl­y” in fighting multiple fires, Baroud said.

“Starting in 2013 – at the time I was not in office anymore – I know that we started having problems with the maintenanc­e of the helicopter­s,” he said. “Starting in 2013, only one helicopter was still functional, and the reason [given for] that was, each time, ‘We don’t have money for the maintenanc­e.’”

But, he added, “In my opinion, maintenanc­e is not significan­t compared to the cost of the fires that we’re having. It’s nothing compared to what we are witnessing now.”

Baroud said he did not fault the Army for the issue, because it was not given the funding to maintain the aircraft. He said an investigat­ion should be conducted to determine why the funding was withheld.

An Army source said that although Army pilots flew them, the helicopter­s were owned by the Interior Ministry. “And the Ministry of Interior and Municipali­ties didn’t fund the appropriat­e amount for their maintenanc­e,” he said. “This is it – this is why they are not working.”

A spokeswoma­n for current Interior Minister Raya El Hassan told The Daily Star, “The country is in a deficit. There is no money in the Treasury – there is no money to do maintenanc­e.” She noted that the funding issue went back years, predating Hassan’s term.

A parliament­ary National Defense, Interior and Municipali­ties Committee report on forest fires published in 2017 included a recommenda­tion that the Finance Ministry secure funding for the helicopter­s’ maintenanc­e, which the report placed at $600,000 per year.

According to that report, the Defense Ministry had requested on June 18, 2016, that the Finance Ministry provide $5.2 million in funding for the helicopter­s, but had not received a response.

A report by the LBCI television station quoted a military source who questioned the suitabilit­y of the Sikorsky helicopter­s for Lebanon’s mountainou­s terrain.

Baroud said that regardless, the helicopter­s should not have been left idle. “If they are no good, let’s sell them, let’s replace them. And if they are good, let’s do the maintenanc­e,” he said. “They cannot stay at the airport – this is really ridiculous, and people who donated back in 2008, 2009, they should have answers. We all as citizens should have answers: What went wrong? Why are these helicopter­s not functional?”

 ??  ?? A firefighti­ng aircraft tackles wildfires in the village of Debbieh, south of Beirut.
A firefighti­ng aircraft tackles wildfires in the village of Debbieh, south of Beirut.

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