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Lebanon seeks help as massive fire threatens homes in north

Smoke rises from the hills of the north Lebanon town of Sfira following a fire that broke out Tuesday, July 30, 2013. (The Daily Star/Antoine Amrieh)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A huge fire that destroyed thousands of trees in north Lebanon surged Wednesday and approached residential areas, prompting the government to consider asking for British assistance battling the blaze.

Cyprus agreed to send Lebanon a helicopter to assist the Army in putting out the fire, which engulfed evergreen forests on the outskirts of the villages of Sfira and Btormaz in Dinnieh and destroyed the country’s biggest pine forest in a matter of hours.

The mayor of Sfira, Hussein Harmoush, said a halt in firefighting operations allowed the blaze to flare up Wednesday morning after it began a day earlier.

“The fire was contained and part of it was put out [Tuesday] night due to the efforts of Lebanese Army helicopters and residents after long hours, but it reignited because the operation stopped at night,” Harmoush told The Daily Star.

Harmoush said a number of residents contacted him, asking for help in preventing the fire from reaching their homes.

Harmoush called on the Lebanese Army for help, adding that he also appointed a lawyer to file an official complaint over the fire, which residents believe may have been deliberately set.

The fire has grown so large that the government is contemplating asking British forces stationed in Cyprus to assist in putting out the blaze.

“The Lebanese government may request the support of helicopters from the British Forces in Cyprus to put out the fire; meanwhile, Civil Defense teams along with the Army’s helicopters are continuing their efforts,” caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office said.

Mikati also followed up on the firefighting efforts with caretaker Interior Minister Marwan and Charbel.

The Civil Defense said that Cyprus agreed to send a helicopter to Beirut airport to assist the Army’s fire-fighting efforts.

“Upon the request of caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, Civil Defense Director General Raymond Khattar phoned Cyprus’ ambassador to Lebanon, who is currently in his country, and they agreed to send one helicopter out of two owned by the Cypriot government,” the organization said in a statement.

The Civil Defense also criticized local authorities for making statements critical of the Civil Defense, saying that some areas neglected to abide by the precautionary measures set by the institution to ease the consequences of seasonal forest fires.

“Some local authorities, particularly those in areas most exposed to seasonal fires, lack [minimum levels of] safety measures and therefore neglected to implement precautionary measures,” the statement said.The same local authorities, which the Civil Defense did not specify, declined to ensure that roads could be used by fire trucks to reach forested areas, or construct build water tanks near vulnerable areas.

“The areas that complied with our calls for precautionary measures in Akkar towns were able to put out the fire with less cost,” it added. “The Civil Defense is fulfilling its duties within the available means, backed by Army units on the ground and helicopters.”

Local officials in the Dinnieh area issued a statement in which they said an estimated 60,000 square meters were affected. They blamed the inability of Army helicopters to fight fires at night for the setbacks in bringing the blaze under control. The officials said that residents suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems have already begun vacating the area.

The fires in Dinnieh were raging as Civil Defense, Army personnel and local residents brought a huge blaze in the northern district of Akkar under control.

However, that fire, in the areas of Wadi Khaled and Akroum Mountain, ended up destroying 1 million square meters of green space according to preliminary estimates, the National News Agency said.

It also engulfed 2,500 olive trees, the NNA said, as well as drawing near the residences of people in the village of Sahleh, according to its mayor.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 01, 2013, on page 1.

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