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 on 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 that had been raised 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 any more – 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 does not fault the Army for the issue, because they were not given the funding to maintain the aircraft. He said an investigation should be done to determine why the funding was withheld.
An Army source said although Army pilots flew them, the helicopters are 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?"