BEIRUT: After eight months on the periphery of most Lebanese people’s worries, forest fire concerns reignited in the collective imagination after a large fire in Hermel Wednesday. The blaze came as Lebanon enters the second month of the six-month-long fire season, which experts warn could be as damaging as the 2019 fire season.
Even prior to the dramatic October forest fires, 2019 had been a tough year for Lebanon’s forests. Indeed, more trees had been burned in Lebanon in the months preceding October than had been planted in the previous 15 years.
The forest fires culminated in a terrible few days starting Oct. 13, when over a 100 fires raged across the country.
For Salam Khalife, the October fires led to 48 hours of terrifying struggle in her village of Mechref, in the Chouf district. Khalife was woken up by a friend at 5:30 a.m. and the environmental activist raced across the village toward a large fire that was threatening homes. She told The Daily Star that Civil Defense personnel hadn’t reached the village until 9:30 a.m. After hours of helping the Civil Defense volunteers to put the fire out, Khalife and fellow villagers returned home at 4 p.m. exhausted.
Later at midnight, Khalife was awakened by her dog barking as a huge blaze approached the street she lives on. After waking her neighbors, she and her fellow villagers worked through the night to fight the fire while evacuating vulnerable people from the area. She told The Daily Star that strong winds meant “the fire was flying.”
Thankfully, despite several houses being severely damaged, there were no casualties or serious injuries.
Despite the horrific scenes in Mechref and around Lebanon in 2019, Dr. George Mitri, director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at the University of Balamand, told The Daily Star that little action has been taken by the government. “It’s really unfortunate, nothing has been done to avoid disaster this coming season and it doesn’t seem that we are in for more favorable conditions this coming fire season,” Mitri told The Daily Star.
Joseph Bechara, a forest and wildfire management specialist who works at the Lebanese Reforestation Initiative, told The Daily Star the recent fire in Hermel had been particularly alarming as the fire took place in an area that was both sparsely forested and had minimal vegetation, attributes that normally mean forest fires are less likely to occur.
Mitri was further concerned that this fire season would be worsened by the migration of people from cities to rural areas as a result of the economic crisis and loss of jobs in the cities. He told The Daily Star that, whether accidentally or deliberately, humans cause the vast majority of fires and so increased human activity in rural areas during the fire season was alarming.
Bechara, who has worked with communities who live in close proximity to forests, told The Daily Star that he was worried people would avoid restaurants, whether that be due to health or financial concerns, and be more inclined to go for picnics and barbecues in forested areas. These outdoor excursions create risks as people cook with fire or smoke cigarettes.
While there is great cause for concern for Lebanon’s forests this year, there are also reasons to be optimistic, both in terms of fire prevention and forest recovery from last year’s fires.
Following the devastating fires in October, a collection of NGOs – including Bechara’s LRI and Mitri’s team at the UoB – conducted an unprecedented assessment of the impact of the year’s forest fires on the environment, thanks to funding from USAID. Using detailed satellite images, the assessment analyzed almost all areas affected by forest fires in Lebanon throughout 2019. The research was conducted in the autumn of 2019 and again in the spring of 2020 to analyze the progress of the forests between the two seasons.
Mitri and his team at UoB have in the previous year developed a fire risk map for Lebanon, and have updated it using information learned and made an assessment. The map assesses the risk factor by looking at the makeup of forests, for example the type of vegetation and the density of trees, and in relation to human activity in the area.
The static fire risk map is then combined with daily weather forecasts to create the fire danger probability, which is then used to predict which areas are at risk over the coming nine days. Mitri believes the now-updated fire danger forecast, publicly available online, provides the most accurate and precise system of forecasts available in Lebanon.
As the primary cause of forest fires is human activity, Mitri believes that when areas are identified as high-risk, municipalities should vigilantly monitor human activity in the forests and be alert for outbreaks. “Focus on the high-risk areas. We know where they are. We can avoid it [forest fires]. Actually, it's not like other natural disasters,” Mitri told The Daily Star.
Khalife said that in the village of Mechref the municipality was now using the risk forecast weekly and if the area surrounding the village was identified as high risk, a WhatsApp message would be sent to the community urging extra caution.
Bechara told The Daily Star that he had seen increased awareness and diligence in Mechref replicated around the country both at the community level and municipalities. However, both Mitri and Bechara were concerned by the fact that the municipalities' engagement with prevention tactics vary significantly, with financial resources being an issue.
On top of the improved fire risk forecast, the LRI, having received money from international donors, has provided Civil Defense in 80 municipalities with new fire fighting equipment. Bechara told The Daily Star that usually forest fires identified in the first 20 minutes can be quickly put out, which was why close monitoring and the right equipment was so essential.
While assessment of areas affected by forest fires in 2019 has improved the risk forecast, it has also shed light on the long-term impact of 2019's fires on the health of the forests. Between the autumn and spring assessment, large areas of forests optimistically moved from being considered at moderate or high risk of further degradation to low risk.
For Mitri, this shows that if human activity in forests is reduced, and the activity that takes place is sensible, then many forests can recover by themselves, while leaving only some areas that require active restoration projects.
With Lebanon facing another long hot summer and a larger than normal rural population, the situation is deeply concerning this fire season. However, hope can be found in an increased societal interest in forest protection and the fact that now, more than in previous years, danger zones can be identified.
“Usually people learn from their mistakes, and this time I hope we learned from ours,” Bechara said.