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LEBANON: Like California, forest fires rage through the woodlands

October 15, 2008 |  1:44 pm

Fire1

Many Lebanese woke up with a sense of relief Wednesday. The sight of morning rain was soothing after a tedious day of firefighters battling  raging forest fires.

Tuesday's blaze in a mountainous area near Beirut was officially described as “disastrous.” According to local media reports, the fires consumed around 1,200 acres of land. People were seen fleeing in some areas. Students were evacuated in an emergency from one university campus, and four firefighters were injured trying to extinguish the fires.

Wednesday's papers published front-page photos of people trying vainly to prevent fires from destroying woodlands.

The daily An-Nahar described the blaze as a “hurricane of fire.” Al-Akhbar newspaper said it was the worst fire in 2008 and described it as a “Neroian” scene, in reference to the Roman emperor, Nero, whose reign witnessed a fire that destroyed half of Rome.

The fires also highlighted the fact that authorities in Lebanon were not well-equipped to deal with forest fires. Every year around this period, forest fires cause a lot of damage to Lebanon’s greenery. Environmentalists have repeatedly sounded the alarm but  say official measures to combat these blazes are never efficient enough.

Last year was particularly catastrophic when fires consumed thousands of acres  of woodland in Lebanese mountains from north to south.

Fire2

“Eyes are tearful because we lack the capacity to extinguish forest fires,” said Lebanon’s interior minister, Ziad Baroud, speaking from one of the affected areas live on local TV after midnight.

He said earlier that firefighters faced difficulties extinguishing the flames because of limited resources and the lack of personnel properly trained for this type of fire.

The interior ministry launched a campaign last month to raise $25 million needed to buy state-of-the-art firefighting equipment, including helicopters and trucks.

In September, an article warned that forest fires fostered partly by climate change could have a devastating effect on Lebanon. The article was run by IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks), a United Nations-linked news website.

The article said that forests covered 35% of Lebanon in 1965 but now covered only  13%, adding that Lebanon could completely lose its forests in 15 to 20 years if large-scale uncontrolled forest fires continued every year.

Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photos: At top, trees burn as Lebanese watch the wildfire that started in the village of Ein el-Hawr, south of Beirut,  on Oct. 14. (Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press). At bottom, a Lebanese firefighter sprays water on a burning tree in a forest in Dibiyeh village, southeast of Beirut, on Oct. 14. (Ramzi  Haidar  / AFP/Getty Images).

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