BEIRUT: Efforts to fight a massive fire that engulfed swathes of forest area in the Baabda region Monday were called into question by locals who complained the response was slow and inefficient.
“We saw a small fire far away so we called the fire department and the municipality, but no one came to put it out,” said Elie Meshab, a resident of the area. “If they had come, it wouldn’t have grown as big as it did.”
Many residents said that Monday’s fire was the biggest they’ve seen in years. Plumes of thick, dark smoke and bright orange flames filled the air in the morning, burning through large sections of the thick, green forest of Betshai and leaving behind only piles of grey and black ash. Many residents temporarily left their homes to stay with relatives or in hotels, as firefighters and the Army’s engineering unit struggled to fight back the flames.
Civil Defense Director-General Raymond Khattar said first responders were doing the best they could to contain the blaze. However, that wasn’t enough for locals, including an MP.
“It’s a new catastrophe to be added to many catastrophes,” Baabda MP Alain Aoun told The Daily Star. Aoun said that criticisms of the Civil Defense response could be linked to their lack of government funding. “We don’t want to wait for a catastrophe to happen, we have to be proactive.”
Residents said they first spotted the fire in the early morning between 6 and 8 a.m. and saw it spread quickly due to high levels of humidity and strong winds. Many claimed to have called various authorities including the local municipality and the Civil Defense office but that it took until around 10 a.m. for a response.
“I was having coffee around 6:30 in the morning when I saw the fire starting,” said Elie, a local engineer. “The first thing I did was call the municipality, who said, ‘It’s not our problem.’”
One resident, a U.N. worker unauthorized to speak to the media, said the fire had started on the far side of a valley and took only moments to travel between 500 and 600 meters due to strong winds. The flames burned the surrounding trees and bushes and leaped across the road to nearby buildings. He said he first reported the fire at 8 a.m. but didn’t see Civil Defense in action until around 11 a. m.
When asked about their response time, a spokesperson from the Civil Defense claimed that they had made it to the scene at 8:25 a.m.
Unable to wait for the Civil Defense as the fire had rapidly surrounded buildings, the U.N. employee said that he and his neighbors sprayed hoses from their balconies and moved parked cars, even breaking the locks of some cars whose owners weren’t around.
“If we didn’t move the cars, the whole building would have burned.”
He described local authorities’ reaction to the fire as “really awful” and “unacceptable.”
“I believe our institutions are not functioning or doing their responsibilities or duties by law,” he said before being interrupted by two young women loading their SUV with pink suitcases. One of the women was visibly shaken and appeared to have been crying.
Meshab, the Baabda resident, said that aside from the concierge, everyone in his building had fled. He had come back to check out the damage but said that he would have to take his family to a hotel for the evening.
“Everyone has left the building, and our houses are filled with the smell of smoke. It’s not good for the health,” he said.
Earlier that day, a unit of about 30 Army engineers, equipped with tree branches, axes and shovels, descended into the valley to contain the blazing fire. In the distance, bright orange flames rose above the trees releasing dark black smoke into the sky as barking dogs and sirens echoed in the background. The unit traveled a narrow rocky path that cut through the forest in order to subdue the fire before it could spread to the residential buildings that lay uphill.
The soldiers trekked the path until smoke, ash and burnt brush filled the air, making it harder to breathe. The soldiers swatted the fire down with the shovels and tree branches, beating it back up the hill. But the fire spread, and as the soldiers chased it uphill, its hiss was heard coming up from the valley.
A troop or reinforcements arrived with chainsaws and began clearing a path downhill to push back the fire’s affront. Each time the soldiers would put down the fire, the wind would reignite it a few meters away.
Taking a break from the fight, a sergeant drenched in sweat with his face and hair littered with ash said, “This b---h is jumping around.”
More reinforcements arrived as the soldiers began attacking the fire from multiple fronts.
At a building nearby, a local man stared out the window of his first-floor apartment into the charred valley, a fire truck in the distance was still fighting some small flames.
Despite Army and Civil Defense’s efforts further up the hill, he said it was too little too late. “Nobody came, and we had to put the fire out ourselves,” he said in frustration.
There had been fires in the past, but this one was different. “It was very dangerous, and now everything’s gone. Never has a fire been this big.”