Algeria and Tunisia reeling from fires that killed at least 35

Thousands of people have been left homeless after blazes raged in the border region

A forest ranger works to douse hotspots in an area hit by a wildfire in Algeria's Bejaia province. Reuters
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Algeria said it has contained deadly wildfires which have raged across the country this week, killing at least 34 people and displacing thousands in the country.

Across the border in Tunisia, where one person has died, firefighters and military forces say the flames were under control by Wednesday afternoon after hitting the impoverished Tabarka region in the north-west.

In Algeria, civil protection authorities contained the blaze, state TV reported early on Wednesday.

At least 1,500 people were forced from their homes as the fires spread, fanned by record-breaking temperatures which pushed the blazes into neighbouring Tunisia.

Across the Mediterranean, swathes of southern Europe are also in flames as a heatwave engulfs the region, with three wildfires in Greece prompting record evacuations and leaving thousands of holidaymakers stranded.

The record-breaking heat has exacerbated the wildfire season in Algeria.

Ten soldiers died after being trapped in Bejaia province as a series of fires raged through the mountain forests of the Kabylia region.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune sent his condolences to the families of those killed.

“I have nowhere to go now – my house and that of my son have been completely destroyed by flames,” said a tearful elderly woman who lost her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. She spoke on TV from Ait Oussalah.

Algerian authorities reported progress in fighting back most of the fires over recent days, having mobilised more than 8,000 civil defence personnel, 500 fire engines and multiple aircraft.

Witnesses described fleeing walls of flames that raged “like a blowtorch”. TV footage showed charred cars, burnt shops and smouldering fields.

In Tunisia, fearful residents told The National they were struggling to breathe and sleep as heavy smoke engulfed border areas.

“I had an inflammation flare-up as I got dehydrated and could not breathe,” said Raouia, 27.

“It felt like judgment day and I was praying that the night would be over soon.”

Tunisian firefighters and military forces were also able to extinguish the wildfires by Wednesday afternoon.

"All fires in the country are under control and we have overcome the danger stage, caution remains in place due to the continuous winds," Civil Defence spokesman Brig Gen Moez Triaa told local radio Mosaique.

One person died in thick smoke from the wildfires in the Tabarka region, where 2,300 people have fled their homes in several areas.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied cut short a trip to Italy because of the fire crisis.

Algeria's recurring fire challenge

Severe wildfires have become a frequent occurrence in recent years in Algeria amid continuing droughts in North Africa with tinder-dry conditions meaning the risk remains.

Temperatures of about 48°C are expected to continue until August, the country’s meteorological service has warned.

Last year, fires from June to September alone burnt 40,000 hectares of forest, damaging the country’s El Kala National Park. A spate of forest fires in September left 30,000 people homeless, according to the Algerian Red Crescent.

At the time, Algiers had to lease aircraft from Russia to tackle the blazes and the Red Crescent mobilised to send aid to hard-hit communities.

In August 2021, 60,000 hectares of woodland were destroyed by wildfires with Nasa satellite imagery capturing vast plumes of smoke in the mountainous areas near Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou.

A report by the European Commission into hundreds of wildfires in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa warned that “due to climate change and the increase in the duration and intensity of dry periods and heatwaves, more intensive forest fire seasons are expected in the future”.

For Algeria, the report said that the country’s 4.1 million hectares of woodland were “constantly threatened by the risk of fire which, each summer, devours thousands of hectares of forest … especially since the forests in Algeria lack facilities and accessibility, which further complicates the task of intervention in the event of a fire outbreak”.

Updated: July 26, 2023, 1:55 PM