BEIRUT: Army helicopters put out a large forest fire that broke out in Hermel Wednesday, as experts warned of increased wildfire risks this season.
The fire in Hermel broke out Wednesday morning, starting in a remote area and then quickly spread to the outskirts of the region by the afternoon. Army helicopters were dispatched when Civil Defense teams were unable to control the fire, the state-run National News Agency reported.
The total area burned by the fire is not yet clear.
Lebanese took to twitter to criticize authorities’ silence on the fires as “Hermel Burning” became one of the top trending hashtags on social media.
“Now as fires rage through the Hermel region, the same ruling class is completely silent as if citizens in that area are second-class,” one tweet read.
“I hope yall are giving hermel the same energy u gave empty buildings in downtown,” twitter user Joelle Oneissi tweeted.
Forest cover in Lebanon is split between 13 percent dense canopy and a further 11 percent of woodland of a lower density, in addition to grassland and shrubbery. The country loses an average of 1,200 to 1,500 hectares of forest (12-15 square kilometers) a year from wildfires, and several hundred more from urbanization. This represents about half a percent of Lebanon’s total forest cover.
“As Lebanon enters its forest fire season, Lebanon is unfortunately still unprepared to deal with large fires,” George Mitri, director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at Balamand University, told The Daily Star.
Mitri warned that an increase of forest fires is expected this summer season due to a number of factors including the economic crisis and more frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves and longer dry seasons.
Mitri says satellite footage have shown that there have been over 60 fires from May 1 of this year until now.
“Many people are moving from urban to rural areas because of the current socio-economic challenges. They can’t afford to live in the city and are moving to rural areas. This increases human activity in these areas,” Mitri said.
Lebanon is going through its worst economic crisis since the Civil War, with the national currency losing over 70 percent of its value on the parallel market over the last week.
Most causes of fire are linked to human activity, Mitri says. “Those moving to rural areas are cleaning their land, and in most cases burning dry grass to clean it,” Mitri explains.
At the same time, hotter and longer summer periods associated with climate change cause vegetation that grew over winter to dry out quicker than before, and stay dry for longer periods, providing ample kindling for any spark.
“Our forests are not managed in a way to reduce fire risks,” Mitri says.
The continued lack of management of Lebanon’s forests makes uncontrollable fires in the country an even bigger risk. Mitri explains that there is no proper maintenance and pruning to thin the density of trees in the forest, which would make forests less prone to fires.
“Lebanon has already entered its forest fire season. We will be dealing with fires that are uncontrollable because of these conditions and Lebanon is unfortunately still unprepared,” Mitri added.
Wildfires that tore through the country’s mountains in October 2019 caused irreparable damage that could take upward of 20 or 30 years to undo. Temperatures recorded at the time were at least 3 to 4 degrees higher than the maximum average temperatures in October over the past 150 years.