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Lebanon on high alert against forest fires

Civil defense extinguish a forest fire in Betshai, Monday, May 5, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk warned Sunday that Lebanon would see a rise in temperatures this week, increasing the risk of forest fires. “Starting May 14, Lebanon will witness a rise in temperatures for several days, which raises the likelihood of fires,” Machnouk said during the launch of the “Big Blue” campaign to clean up a beach in Sidon.

He called on the appropriate agencies, particularly the Civil Defense, to be on high alert and ready to intervene “to deal with the fire before it escalates.”

Experts say there are a number of measures individuals can take to help prevent catastrophic forest fires like the one that raged through Baabda last week.

Campers and picnickers can inadvertently trigger massive blazes, said Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, the director general of the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation. “When we go to any camping sites, we have to make sure that the barbecue site is very far from any dry wood or anything green,” Fakhreddine told The Daily Star.

“And when we finish a barbecue, we have to put water on it and make sure it is completely extinguished,” she added. “The ashes and coal should be completely black, and no smoke should be coming out.”

The head of the Lebanese Eco Movement, Paul Abi Rached, went a step further, saying from now until December there should be no open fires in Lebanon. “We must ban all fireworks, agricultural burning and all fires at picnics this year,” he said. “We must be categorical.”

According to the Lebanese Fire Prevention Committee, “Lebanese law forbids anyone from burning shrubs, grass, straw and other plants except with a permit from the Forestry Department in the territories that are at a distance less than 500 m from the forest between July 1 to Oct. 13.”

The law, however, is little known and poorly enforced.

But both Abi Rached and Fakhreddine stressed that members of the public should immediately report a fire regardless of whether or not they were involved in igniting the blaze. “It is very important for individuals to report whenever they see any smoke, in any place,” Fakhreddine said.

If the authorities are contacted soon after a fire ignites, they have a much greater chance of extinguishing it, Abi Rached said.

“They say that if you don’t act within the first 20 minutes after a fire starts you will never stop it,” Abi Rached said. “If you go with a small amount of water or equipment you can stop a fire during the first 20 minutes. It is not difficult.”

But calling the Civil Defense is not enough, he said. “You have to call and take action.”

Water or a fire extinguisher, if available, should be used to douse the flames. Alternatively, Abi Rached said dumping sand or soil on a small fire would deprive it of oxygen and extinguish the flames. If motorists pass a small fire on the side of the road, throwing the car’s floor mats on the fire would have a similar effect, he added. Abi Rached also claimed that, in desperate straits, a small fire can be smothered with live green tree branches.

Moreover, as fires often spread by igniting dry brush, those who live near forests should clear undergrowth around their properties. “All landowners and farmers should clear [brush] 500 meters away from their properties ... so in case they carry out any [fire related] activities on their lands the fire will not expand to the forest,” he said.

More than 35 percent of the forest cover in Lebanon has deteriorated over the last 40 years, leaving just 13 percent of Lebanon forested, according to the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk warned Sunday that Lebanon would see a rise in temperatures this week, increasing the risk of forest fires.

The head of the Lebanese Eco Movement, Paul Abi Rached, went a step further, saying from now until December there should be no open fires in Lebanon.

Both Abi Rached and Fakhreddine stressed that members of the public should immediately report a fire regardless of whether or not they were involved in igniting the blaze.

Abi Rached also claimed that, in desperate straits, a small fire can be smothered with live green tree branches.

Moreover, as fires often spread by igniting dry brush, those who live near forests should clear undergrowth around their properties.

More than 35 percent of the forest cover in Lebanon has deteriorated over the last 40 years, leaving just 13 percent of Lebanon forested, according to the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation.


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