At least 34 dead as Algeria becomes latest nation hit by wildfires

North African country is the latest Mediterranean nation to suffer bushfires after Greece, Turkey and Cyprus

Gigantic fires ravaged eastern Algeria overnight on Monday and throughout Tuesday, killing at least 34 people in Kabylie, the centre of the disaster.

Fires were reported in 18 of the country’s 58 districts, ten of them near Tizi Ouzou, one of the most populous cities in Kabylie.

Major fires were also reported in Jijel, Bejaia, Bouira, Guelma, Khenchela and Setif.

Videos and photos shared online showed residents of towns fleeing as fire raged in nearby mountains.

An inhabitant of Larbaa Nath Iraten, a village near Tizi Ouzou, said the fire felt as if it came from nowhere during high winds.

"It took a couple of minutes for the small wildfire to grow and threaten the village," Mohand, who wished only to share his first name, said.

"We had a lot of issues with the evacuation, the army and firemen helped a lot."

Meteorologists said the temperature would reach 46ºC on Tuesday. The country is also struggling with severe water shortages.

No official death toll has been released, but hospital sources confirmed six civilians and three firefighters were dead.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said 25 members of the People's National Army had died while rescuing over 100 people in Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou.

He later tweeted: "As we have won in previous adversities, we will prevail in these, God willing. Our hearts are with everyone who contributed to putting out the fire, as we instructed to take all necessary measures to control and control the situation."

Colonel Farouk Achour, spokesman for Civil Protection, said his department had sent 12 fire engines and mobilised more than 900 men to help stem the fires and protect people and property.

“The Civil Protection has put in place a very significant contingency plan,” Mr Achour said.

“We went from 32 to 56 mobile columns [a type of fire engine], independently of the reinforcement of the capacities of the territorial units, and of the opening of new units on the entire territory. We reinforce this system from year to year,” he said.

Interior and Local Communities Minister Kamel Beldjoud blamed criminal elements for starting the blazes, made worse by a hot, dry summer.

“Only criminal hands can be behind the simultaneous outbreak of 50 fires across several localities in the wilaya (administrative region),” he said.

He noted the similarity of the fires to others recorded elsewhere in the country, such as Khenchela, in the north-east, a month ago.

The fires brought back memories of devastating blazes in Khenchela last year, which scorched several thousand hectares of forests and destroyed more than a third of the area’s apple production.

In Kabylie, a region 90 kilometres east of the capital Algiers, 19 fires broke out at almost the same time, a local Civil Protection official told The National.

Monday was marked by a heat wave exceeding 45°C and high winds, which are elements conducive to the spread of fires. Thick and dry vegetation cover can act as kindling for such fires.

The fires are expected to weaken the government’s fight against the Covid-19 and compound the scarcity of oxygen in hospitals.

In an TV interview on August 8, Mr Tebboune warned the population against rumours spread on social networks, accusing enemy countries and hidden entities of waging a “fourth-generation war against Algeria”.

At the beginning of November 2020, a series of bushfires had ravaged several regions in Algeria and the local press had pointed its finger at Morocco, but without any proof.

Neighbour Tunisia, also suffering from blazes, offered to deploy a helicopter to support firefighting in Algeria. This offer came after a phone call between the Tunisian President Kais Saied and his counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Updated: August 11th 2021, 10:30 AM