Wildfires in Lebanon punish an already battered population

Environment minister claims 'fires are of human origin'

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The car park of a monastery on the slopes of Mount Lebanon has been turned into a temporary reservoir. Every few minutes, a helicopter swoops in, filling a tank dangling below it from a large pool fed by firefighters’ hosepipes.

The aircraft’s updraft soaks a dozen onlooking soldiers, and in an instant, it is sauntering off into the distant mountains to drop water on the smouldering ruins of Lebanon’s natural landscape — or what remains of it.

We have equipment that is stuck at the port or in other storage places, and not distributed to the Civil Defence because the politicians don't know to which area they want to give them
Samer El Khoury, political activist

Wildfires have been ravaging Mount Lebanon and areas in the country’s south for three days but are largely under control now, say those responsible for leading the response. Yet those caught in the heat are exhausted and despondent. It is just the latest in a series of crises to hit the Lebanese people.

“We still had the beauty of this country. Now, it's gone,” says Fady Youssef who runs a tennis academy nestled among the cedars of Mount Lebanon outside the town of Monteverde.

“This is the only place where you could get away from it, in the mountains, now everything is gone,” he says.

Devastating wildfires hit Lebanon

Devastating wildfires hit Lebanon

Economic catastrophe

Mr Youssef was one of an ever-shrinking number of Lebanese business owners attempting to outlast a political and economic crisis that has bought the country to its knees.

A captain of the Davis Cup Team and former national champion, he opened up his tennis academy three years ago to nurture some of the country’s top talent.

On Monday afternoon, a young girl works on her backhand, patiently encouraged by her coach. In the background, the ash black carcasses of the country’s famous cedar trees continue to smoke — it is a vivid metaphor for a country where a disastrous economic collapse has increasingly taken on environmental dynamics.

Yet while play goes on today, it seems this weekend’s fires were a final straw for Youssef. He says he will leave Lebanon in the next two months.

“They don't want us to stay in this country. They want all of us to leave.”

The scorched earth, still smoking in some areas, runs right up to the academy’s car park. Metres away from the building’s generator a pile of leaves continues to smoke. If the generator had gone, so too would his business — he needs the spotlights to coach at night — there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for him to make a living.

Many The National spoke to said they worked through the weekend extinguishing flames creeping towards their homes and business, only for the fires to start up again after a few hours. Firefighting is a science, and done incorrectly, will only see the flames start up again.

Many are convinced that arson is behind the fires — they blame scavengers who have been illegally felling trees, an increasingly common practice amid the economic crisis.

Environment Minister Nasser Yassin also cried foul. “We can say that all these fires are of human origin,” he said on Monday afternoon.

“There is an intentional act and the Interior Ministry is working to determine who is responsible for this.”

Whether it was a natural disaster or something more malign, it is the state’s inability to respond that has angered people already battered by economic and political problems.

Divisive politics

Decades of grift have hollowed out the ability of the country’s Civil Defence and Army to respond to outbreaks of wildfires — for years three firefighting helicopters have sat grounded due to a lack of spare parts. In August, it was reported that the cash-strapped army was looking to sell them to raise funds.

“The environmental problems in Lebanon are political problems,” says Samer El Khoury, environmental spokesperson for Minteshreen, an opposition group born out of the country’s 2019 protests.

“We have equipment that is stuck at the port or in other storage places, and not distributed to the Civil Defence because the politicians don't know to which area they want to give them.

“The things they [Civil Defence] are asking for are very basic — they literally don't cost a lot. But you know how it goes; every bit of money that comes in for the aid of the country just stays in the politicians’ pockets.”

At the academy, Mr Youssef must continue with his day’s lessons. He is also preparing for a tournament in Kuwait in December.

“Who knows if they’ll even give us visas”, he says.

Nothing in Lebanon is straightforward, not even tennis.

Updated: November 16, 2021, 3:48 AM