Beirut: Lebanon is battling massive forest fires that have ravaged homes and killed a citizen in the Mediterranean country, the Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri said on Tuesday. “We have contacted the Europeans who will send means of help,” Hariri said in comments carried by national news agency NNA.
More than 110 enormous fires were believed to have started due to hot and windy weather conditions, before an unexpected rise in temperature worsened the situation, with fires spreading to nearly a dozen villages and hundreds of properties, a Lebanese Civil Defence spokesperson told Gulf News.
The worst hit villages were Mechref, Dibbeyye, Damour, Daqqoun, Kfar Matta, Yahchouh, Mazra’at Yashoua’, Qurnet Al Hamra, Ba’awarta, Al Na’ameh, Al Khrab and Mtayreyye, among others.
The Municipal Chief of Damour, a village in Mount Lebanon district, Charles Ghafari said: “More than 2 million square metres of trees and houses are down to aches. The fire has been ongoing since yesterday.”
In a televised interview, LCD’s Director General Raymond Khattar said more than 110 fires erupted during the past 24 hours across Lebanon. “Our teams are working in full capacity on the ground to extinguish the fires. There are nearly 30 firefighting trucks collaborating with Lebanese Army personnel and other authorities concerned to put out the fires. This is a tragic scene … the first of its kind in 10 years.”
The biggest fire-hit area was Mechref, according to Khattar, who said Monday’s fire had been put out in the afternoon but in the evening a high voltage power line snapped. A big explosion happened and that was the main reason behind the fire restarting.
Fires that erupt at 1am raises question marks, he said. A citizen of Mechref, Abed H., said: “Citizens have been fighting the fire since yesterday. Despite the country’s bad situation, this nationwide crisis has brought the Lebanese together … citizens joined hands and purchased water tanks to help extinguish the fires. They paid from their own pockets. Thanks to God, we still have some good and responsible people.”
A leased villa’s owner in Damour said his tenant called them crying and said the ‘property was down to ashes’. He moved his family to a safe place. Hundreds of families were thought to have moved to safer areas.
George Kettaneh, the Lebanese Red Cross’s secretary general said they rescued more than 50 civilians who had suffered suffocation.
LCD’s spokesperson told Gulf News: “It started Monday morning and by the afternoon it was 70 per cent under control. However, the sudden rise in temperature [35 degrees Celsius] and strong, hot winds reignited the fires. Five firemen suffered mild suffocation. Another negative aspect was that the fire hit an old minefield.”
Thick smoke has been seen drifting over the outskirts of Beirut, over the mountainous Chouf region to its southeast, and the southern city of Saida.
In the Chouf, an area known for its trees, a citizen, Salem Abu Moujahed, lost his life trying to put out the flames, his family said.
In an area south of Beirut, firefighters have for two days been unable to stop the blaze, which has burnt four homes to the ground and caused dozens to suffer from breathing difficulties, NNA said.
Lebanon’s Interior Minister Raya Al Hassan was the first to visit the burned down villages.
During her inspection tour she dismissed suggestions that negligence or incompetence had been behind the quick spread of the fires.
Al Hassan said Cyprus and Greece had responded to Lebanon’s call for help.
“Two Cypriot planes have been working to put out the fires since yesterday,” she said on Twitter.
“Greece has responded to our request and will send two planes to help us,” she added, while Jordan also said it was ready to help.
NNA said the army was working together with helicopters and the Cypriot planes to fight the blaze, with access sometimes impeded by thick smoke and high-voltage power lines.
UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, whose members usually patrol the country’s southern border with Israel, has also joined in the efforts, the agency said.
In neighbouring war-torn Syria, fires also killed two people, Syrian state media said.
Flames have ripped through parts of the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus, as well as the central province of Homs but most have been brought under control, state news agency SANA said.
Two members of the Latakia forestry department were killed while fighting he blaze, it said.
In Tartus, the fires - mostly stamped out - coincided with the olive harvest, the governor told SANA.
In Homs, trees were burnt and electricity networks disrupted in mountainous areas, the agency reported.
-With inputs from agencies