The first week of July saw an unprecedented number of wild fires rage across the country: 185 in three days. The Lebanese authorities struggled to contain the unexpected fires; the three firefighting Sirkosky helicopters, acquired this year, still weren’t ready to be used so early in the dry summer season.
From Beirut, smoke from two fires could be seen billowing off the Chouf and Metn, leaving black scars in its wake. From Zgharta to Tebnin, the fires burnt fruit groves, olive trees, grassland and pine forest. The damage costs farmers and others millions of dollars per year — up to $10 million to replant 2,000 hectares of land. The fires are suspected of being started by farmers, charcoal collectors, trash burners or campers, despite a law that comes into effect every summer banning fires in rural areas.
It was the same in 2007, when fires destroyed 4,031 hectares of forest and agricultural land, or more than triple the annual average of 1,200 hectares. To the Lebanese government, this number symbolized far more than just the immense physical and fiscal damage that the fires caused. This time, change needed to happen.
“The fires of 2007 following the damages caused by the summer war of 2006 brought to light not only to the Lebanese citizens, but also to the government, the rapid decrease of forestry in Lebanon,” said Dr. George Mitri, research and development program coordinator at the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC), a Lebanon-based non-governmental organization collaborating with the government to find a more effective long-term solution to Lebanon’s forest fire problem.
“In 1965, the percentage of forestry in Lebanon, and we’re talking about mostly pine trees, was at 35 percent of the country. Today, 34 years later, it’s at only 13 percent,” continued Mitri. According to an AFDC report, 5.6 percent of Lebanon is at high risk of fires and 25 percent at medium to high risk.
When forests are lost, ecosystems are destroyed. Certain species of plants, animals and different kinds of wildlife continue to be classified as endangered in Lebanon. Forests act as somewhat of a ‘filter’ for air. With less forests, the effects of pollution are more severe. Additionally, forests serve economic benefits, with the average hectare of forest in Lebanon generating gross benefits of $381 per year according to the AFDC. This figure rises when fruit trees are included. For instance, one hectare of oilve trees generates an estimated $13,300, according to the World Bank. Overall, the total gross losses of the October to November 2007 fires were estimated at $31.1 million.
So when the smoke cleared, plans were put in place to develop a new strategy to better manage and combat forest fires in Lebanon. ‘Lebanon’s National Strategy for Forest Fire Management’ was introduced this spring as the new official tool to combat forest fires in the future. The most important aspect of the strategy, according to Mitri, was that it signified the first time the Ministries of Interior, Environment and Agriculture were to collaborate jointly, alongside the Civil Defense and a number of local and international NGOs.
The working plan
Lara Samaha, head of the Department of Ecosystems at the Ministry of Environment, believes that the strategy is a positive first step and can succeed in effectively bringing down the annual damage caused by fires in the long term.
She says the strategy specifies what needs to be done to combat forest fires in Lebanon, as well as “determines for each national action, on all levels, the concerned and appropriate administration for its implementation.”
The strategy emphasizes the three important steps of forest fire management: prevention, combating the fires, and restoration and rehabilitation of the land. Within the strategy are the detailed responsibilities of each ministry, and the best method for each to execute its role.
The hurdles that the new strategy must overcome, however, remain immense. The Lebanese climate is often compared to that of California, where pine tree forest fires prove to be a consistent and difficult problem. In California, the average loss of forest has been 105,000 hectares per year over the last five years.
“When the committee was put together to come up with the new national strategy, we went to California to speak to experts in the field, knowing that we were going to need to learn more,” said Samaha.
Year after year
Thousands of fires threaten Lebanon’s forests every year, and the Civil Defense’s fire fighters — up to 4,000 of them unpaid volunteers — struggle to contain the destruction during the dry summer months, between late May through September. Among the most difficult factors in combating forest fires is their unpredictability once the flames are out of control.
“Some of the factors contributing to spreading forest fires are wind speeds and distances from the nearest Civil Defense stations,” explained Mitri. “As long as the Civil Defense can make it to the area of the fire within the first 20 minutes, they can probably contain it before it grows.”
George Abi Musa, the head of operations at the Department of Civil Defense, agreed that getting to the fire early is key to properly managing and combating it, but adds that this is often difficult.
“When you have 15 or 20 fires which are burning at the same time, it’s nearly impossible to get to all of them in proper time,” explained Abi Musa. “In late June, did you know that there were 683 fires in a span of five days, with 45 of them coming in a two-hour span?”
Abi Musa believes that the Civil Defense has one of the largest, if not the largest role to play in managing forest fires in Lebanon, and is excited about the three new Sirkosky helicopters purchased by the Ministry of Interior to be used by the Civil Defense. The helicopters, which can carry up to 3,500 liters of water per trip, are estimated to have cost a total of $13 million, according to The Daily Star, and are the first such helicopters to be owned and used by Lebanon.
“I’ve been with the Civil Defense for 25 years now, and up until this point, owning such helicopters was just a dream,” said Abi Musa. “Now we can reach the fires which were previously nearly impossible to reach.”
Armed with the new strategy, confidence within the Lebanese government is high in regards to managing forest fires, but Mitri, Samaha, and Abi Musa all insist that none of what is to be accomplished can be done without the help of every Lebanese citizen in aiding the government to protect the forests of Lebanon.
“When you have a single fire, then that could have been started by natural causes. But when you have 50 or 60, it means that these are started by people, whether harm is intended or not,” said Abi Musa.
All three spoke of the need for citizens to contact the Civil Defense in cases where they see a fire, or anyone about to start one.
Additionally, finances are an important part of any effective fire-management system, with some $1.4 million spent firefighting in 2007. Replanting is a further cost, estimated at $6,300 per hectare. Sufficient funds are a luxury the Lebanese Civil Defense does not have. Support has trickled in more consistently since the fires of 2007, the year when the problem was recognized globally. Much of what can be accomplished with the new strategy will depend on the continued support of other countries, as well as local and international contributions.
Ultimately, time will tell whether or not Lebanon’s new national strategy will effectively counter the forest fire problem, but for once, there’s optimism in the government that they are one step closer to finally snuffing out the flames.