Bushfires threaten to destroy Lebanon's ancient mountain forests

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - In the highest forests of the Lebanese mountains, the dark green leaves of the legendary cedrus libani fan out as far as the eye can see.

These cedar trees, whose unmistakable triangular shape takes pride of place on Lebanon’s flag, are under threat as bushfires tear through some of Lebanon’s most remote landscapes.

A 2014 model created by a team from the Land and Natural Resources programme at Balamand University projected that in 2020, climatic shifts and vulnerabilities would put forests in mountainous areas at an increased risk of fire damage.

Their prediction has so far proved to be accurate. More than 400 hectares of vegetation have already burned across Lebanon this year, mostly at high altitudes, according to George Mitri, the programme’s director.

“This is a relatively large number for this stage in the fire season, so we can expect this year’s bushfires to be well above average,” he said.

Lebanon's bushfire season typically runs from late June to October, but fires have previously ignited as early as March and as late as December. Between 1,200 and 1,500 hectares of vegetation are burned every year.

Calcined trees stand in an ash-covered field after fires broke out around the village of Meshref in Lebanon's Chouf mountains, southeast of the capital Beirut on October 15, 2019 when flames devoured large swaths of land in several Lebanese and Syrian regions. AFP 
Calcined trees stand in an ash-covered field after fires broke out around the village of Meshref in Lebanon's Chouf mountains, southeast of the capital Beirut on October 15, 2019 when flames devoured large swaths of land in several Lebanese and Syrian regions. AFP 

In early October 2019, over 100 fires raged across Lebanon in the worst bushfire season in decades, destroying more than 1,200 hectares of forest in three days. At least one person died from smoke inhalation and hundreds of families were forced to evacuate their homes in the Chouf mountain region.

This year, vegetation that has dried out over the summer months, combined with higher than average temperatures soaring above 40 degrees celsius, have created the ideal conditions for bushfires.

Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, has also raised the likelihood of bushfire outbreaks, Mr Mitri explained.

During country-wide coronavirus lockdowns, many Lebanese escaped to their villages in rural areas, while the economic crisis spurred some to begin growing their own food.

“Increased rural activity naturally translates to increased fire risk,” Mr Mitri said.

Firefighters extinguish flames in a forest near the village of Meshref in Lebanon's Chouf mountains, southeast of the capital Beirut, on October 15, 2019. AFP
Firefighters extinguish flames in a forest near the village of Meshref in Lebanon's Chouf mountains, southeast of the capital Beirut, on October 15, 2019. AFP

Over the last few weeks, dozens of fires have ravaged sparse forests at altitudes of more than 1,000 meters, in areas such as Akkar, along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria.

Lebanon’s high forests are made up of cedar and juniper trees that are hundreds of years old and cannot easily be replaced. These coniferous trees, unlike other tree species, do not have natural mechanisms that allow them to regenerate after fires, explained Joseph Bechara, a firewire project manager with local NGO the Lebanese Reforestation Initiative.

Just over the border, Syria has also suffered intense bushfires this summer, scorching hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and wiping out the only source of income for thousands of farmers.

The rocky terrain of Lebanon’s highest mountains are also home to extremely rare species of flora and fauna. The iris basaltica flower, for example, is only found in mountainous areas of north Lebanon and eastern Syria.

“The ecological cost of fires at these high altitudes is enormous,” said Abdelhadi Saab, an agricultural engineer with the volunteer-led environmental group Akkar Trail. “These are ancient natural forests, mostly untouched by humans.”

Volunteers climb to the site of a forest fire in Jird Harar, in Lebanon’s Akkar region on August 30, 2020
Volunteers climb to the site of a forest fire in Jird Harar, in Lebanon’s Akkar region on August 30, 2020

Most of the fires in Akkar this year broke out in the late afternoon, when temperatures are at their highest, Mr Saab said. There are dozens of potential sparks, he added, from carelessly-discarded cigarettes to glass bottles catching the sunlight.

Many of Lebanon’s most biodiverse nature reserves are in areas highly vulnerable to fire this year, such as the UNESCO world heritage site the Cedars of God in Bcharre, and the cedar reserves in the Chouf, which was among the worst-impacted regions in last year's fires.

Firefighting in these remote mountain areas is particularly challenging, as ordinary firefighting trucks cannot access their steep slopes and valleys.

Beyond the harshness of the terrain, Lebanon’s civil defence firefighting teams are woefully under-equipped and underfunded.

When apocalyptic fires broke out across Lebanon in October 2019, volunteers from the civil defence lacked basic equipment and three firefighting Sikorsky S-70 helicopters were unable to offer support because the government had failed to maintain them.

This picture taken on October 15, 2019 shows vehicles lying on the side of a road, after they were burnt by fires near the town of Damour in Lebanon's Chouf mountains southeast of the capital. AFP
This picture taken on October 15, 2019 shows vehicles lying on the side of a road, after they were burnt by fires near the town of Damour in Lebanon's Chouf mountains southeast of the capital. AFP

In June, just as temperatures began to rise, the cash-strapped government approved a request from the Defence Ministry to sell all three firefighting helicopters in a public bid.

“After the fires of October last year, nothing changed,” Mr Mitri said.

The lack of human and material resources mean that the firefighters are only able to extinguish small, limited fires that break out at the beginning of the bushfire season in late spring, Mr Mitri explained.

On a recent visit to civil defence centres in Mount Lebanon, Mr Bechara and his team discovered that water outlets essential to firefighting were non-functional in 14 separate locations.

“We do everything we can as an NGO to reduce fire risk, but there’s only so much we can do,” he said.

Two areas of forest in Akkar that the LRI replanted last winter after being destroyed in previous fires were once again scorched this summer.

In northern Akkar, a single firefighting truck in covers an area of 160 square kilometres and the rocky terrain means responses are often slow, Mr Saab explained.

Whenever the Akkar Trail team hears of the outbreak of a fire, they rush to the site and do the best they can to extinguish the flames with small hoses, bottles of water and basic agricultural tools. They have now launched a fundraiser to buy a truck equipped with a 1,000-litre water tank, pumps and hoses.

In Mr Bechara’s view, another key challenge is the state’s failure to prepare in advance of the bushfire season. In 2009, the Cabinet adopted a national strategy for forest fire management. However, it has never been implemented.

“They wait for the problem to happen, and then try to find a solution,” he said. “We need proper nationwide standards and guidelines.”

Lebanon’s bushfire season typically peaks in September and October, and it is likely that blazes will continue to ignite in the coming weeks. Even rainfall may not be able to save the natural landscape.

“A few drops of rain can release methane – a highly flammable gas – from the soil, and increase the fire risk,” Mr Bechara explained.

As an Akkar native who has a deep connection to the region’s ancient forests, Mr Saab feels the loss of the invaluable landscape is a personal one.

“All this amazing nature was burned for no reason, and it could have been prevented,” he said. “It’s truly heartbreaking.”

Updated: September 16, 2020 02:46 PM

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