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Forest fire season getting longer, fiercer
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BEIRUT: Experts are warning that 2012 could be a dangerous year in terms of forest fires, with an increasing number of fires starting earlier in the year, a growing buildup of combustible firewood on forest floors, and a lack of cohesive policy to manage the annual disaster all to blame.

The country’s forest coverage is already much diminished, standing at just 13 percent compared to 30 percent in 1980.

“We are losing our forests on a permanent basis because of forest fires,” says George Mitri, director of the biodiversity program at the Institute of the Environment at Balamand University in Tripoli.

Mitri has been researching the issue for years, and with the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation, created a strategy for forest fire management, endorsed by the Cabinet in 2009 but not yet implemented.

Decades ago, forest fires would occur in the same area only once every 30 or 40 years – but now they often strike twice in the same area within 15 years, a frequency which robs the land of a chance to naturally regenerate.

Twenty years ago, according to Mitri, “we never used to have uncontrollable fires ... now they can burn for three or four days.”

This increased occurrence of fierce fires, Mitri says, is due to the abandonment of traditional industries related to forests, and harsher climatic conditions, among other factors.

Elias Chnais, program assistant at the AFDC, agrees with this assessment. “In the past, people were much closer to the forests and agriculture, and the forest was part of their lives,” he says.

Those who worked in traditional industries making molasses, silk and clay spent considerable amounts of time gathering firewood from the forest floor, and the disappearance of these crafts has led to an accelerated buildup of potential fuel.

“As they started to abandon this way of life, fuel was building up,” Chnais says, leading to a widespread “flammable biomass” across the forest floor.

The remaining forests are often adjacent to agricultural lands, which Mitri calls another compounding factor, because the majority of fires originate from farmland and travel to wooded areas.

The fires begin when farmers burn agricultural waste, or when they use fire to clean their land.

While it is technically illegal to burn waste from the end of May until October, this law is not respected.

With the first rains normally not appearing until October, a small spark from a deliberate agricultural fire, coupled with summer weather conditions – strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures – can quickly turn a small fire into an unmanageable one, Mitri and Chnais point out.

Further factors which can spark forest fires are camping fires or fireworks launched at weddings, which are most common during the summer months.

While arson is occasionally to blame for forest fires – when one neighbor wants to take revenge on another, for example – it is a rare occurrence, Mitri says. There is also a common misconception that people deliberately burn forest areas in an attempt to create charcoal they can then market.

“Charcoal only comes from healthy green forests. If wood is burnt it cannot produce charcoal, people know that,” Mitri says.

In 2005 the Agriculture Ministry reported the average area burnt annually was 1,200 hectares, however, just seven years later, Mitri says this figure is no longer valid and estimates that it is now “easily 1,800 hectares annually.”

There is as yet no accurate scientific calculation of the fire season, but students in a new Master’s program in Forest Management at the Lebanese University, developed with AFDC, are working to formulate one.

But Mitri believes 2012 could be a “very dangerous year because of the weather conditions and because it started early.”

Ten years ago the fire season was much shorter than it is today, starting in June and usually ending in September or October. Today, Mitri says, it starts in May and can stretch until December. He believes this longer time frame is due to an increase in indirect factors such as agricultural fires and climate change.

Last year, the Civil Defense launched a forest fire prediction system which provides every district across the country with a daily bulletin on the likelihood of fire outbreak in the coming days.

Developed in collaboration with the Italian Cooperation agency, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, AFDC and the Chouf Biosphere Reserve, it is hoped the program will soon allow municipal leaders to emphasize the dangers of lighting fires during the summer season.

“If municipalities could pass on this alert to villagers and say ‘do not light a fire during these high-risk periods,’ all of this would fall into place and complement each other,” Chnais says. “We are giving them the tools ... but ultimately municipalities and local communities must be responsible.”

Currently, the responsibility for forest fire fighting falls primarily with the Civil Defense, the vast majority of whose members are volunteers, but also involved are the Environment, Agriculture and Interior ministries, the Lebanese Army, the Internal Security Forces, and the Council for Development and Reconstruction.

One pressing issue, Chnais and Mitri say, is to improve coordination among these different entities.

“There is a lack of coordination: there should be a united strategy for the government in terms of forests and natural resources,” Chnais says.

The forestry sector is also disadvantaged, he adds, due to a lack of national research. “We need more expert opinions.

“We need to understand the forest in order to manage it and protect it,” he says. “We don’t want our actions to be random ... it has to be comprehensive.”

In the instance of a forest fire, call the Civil Defense hotline on 125 and be prepared to provide you name, phone number and location of the fire.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 23, 2012, on page 3.
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