Lebanon asks Cyprus to help fight fires after volunteer dies

Local man dies after suffering a head injury as he helped to extinguish the blaze

A Lebanese army helicopter drops water over a forest fire, at Qobayat village, in the northern Akkar province, Lebanon, Thursday, July 29, 2021.  Lebanese firefighters are struggling for the second day to contain wildfires in the country's north that have spread across the border into Syria, civil defense officials in both countries said Thursday.  (AP Photo / Hussein Malla)
Powered by automated translation

Lebanon asked neighbouring Cyprus to send helicopters to help the Lebanese army and Civil Defence fight fires that killed a local volunteer and threaten residential areas in north Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency reported on Thursday.

“Communication was made with Cypriot authorities to send helicopters,” said the secretary general of the Higher Relief Commission, Maj Gen Mohammad Kheir, who supervised operations in the northern tip of Lebanon in the region of Qobayat, where fires started on Wednesday afternoon.

“We have been working hard to put [the fires] out but we are facing difficulties in extinguishing them because of the rugged mountains and valleys in the area,” Gen Kheir said

The NNA reported on Wednesday evening that in the town of Kaftroun, local volunteer Amin M had died after falling on his head as he helped to fight the blaze. The volunteer was not working with the Red Cross, its communications adviser Rodney Eid told The National. Lebanon's civil defence later gave his name as Amin Melhem.

The general directorate of civil defence said in a statement on Thursday that three of its members were lightly injured while working to fight the fires over the last two days. Civil Defense said it had deployed 25 vehicles on site and is supported by four Lebanese army helicopters.

Strong winds drove the fires from the Lebanese region of Hermel into Syrian territory, destroying large stretches of pine and larch forests in the Lebanese town of Al Ruwaymah.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri thanked Syrian authorities for helping Lebanon fight back, but did not give further details.

On Thursday evening, the Lebanese army warned on Twitter that the fires were getting stronger again in the region of Qobayat.

George Abou Moussa, a Civil Defence official in charge of forest fires, told The National that the blaze was uncontrollable.

“There are strong winds and fires are still burning around houses,” he said.

Mr Abou Moussa denied rumours on social media that the fire engines did not have enough fuel to get to the scene. Lebanon is currently suffering severe fuel shortages caused by the country’s financial crisis.

Strong forest fires are common in Lebanon and are increasing as a result of a combination of factors, including poor management. Experts previously told The National that the government has failed to implement a national strategy for fire management.

On Wednesday evening, the Red Cross said on Twitter that it had taken eight people to hospital, rescued 17 others from their homes, and administered first aid to 25 people. The next day, another 15 people were evacuated and 15 treated on site but no-one had been taken to the hospital by Thursday evening, Mr Eid said.

The federation of municipalities of Jabal Akroum released a statement, published on Thursday morning, appealing for help.

“We call on the army leadership to send helicopters as fast as possible otherwise the fire may reach residential areas at any moment,” it read.

“The fire is still raging, devouring pine trees and oaks and reaching orchards with fruit trees, which are the only source of livelihood” for locals.

Uncontrollable forest fires in mid-October 2019 caused widespread public anger, which was shortly followed by mass anti-government protests triggered by a minister’s attempt to tax WhatsApp calls.

The country’s financial and economic crisis has worsened in the past two years.

More than half the Lebanese population lives in poverty.

Updated: July 29, 2021, 3:38 PM