Firefighters on Wednesday were still trying to contain a wildfire that erupted in the Meloula forest in Tabarka, Jendouba governorate, north-west Tunisia, on Tuesday afternoon, local authorities said.
Civil protection units, forest rangers, national guardsmen as well as Tunisian soldiers were sent to try to control the flames that had spread quickly due to record high temperatures, hot winds and dry conditions, Jendouba's governor told local radio station Mosaique.
Emergency backup was also provided by civil protection units from the nearby governorates of El Kef, Beja, Siliana, Zaghouen, Manouba and Bizerte, as well as by student firefighters and civilian volunteers.
The fire has damaged 10 hectares of land but authorities said a full damage assessment could only be completed after it is extinguished.
Four families were evacuated by Tunisian armed forces and national guard units from nearby areas.
“The priority at the moment is to protect human lives and evacuate people to a safer place as the area is characterised by very difficult terrain,” Jendouba Governor Samir Kouka told Mosaique radio.
Military helicopters have also been sent to provide support to civil protection units.
Authorities noted that the fire will be fully controlled within the next few hours.
Local witnesses told The National that the people evacuated were taken to youth homes and schools to take shelter.
About 3,000 residents live in Meloula village and might need to be evacuated if flames reach more populated areas.
Forests in Tunisia cover a massive 1.3 million hectares, 70 per cent of which are located in the north-west and centre west. In Tabarka, forest cover has plummeted in recent decades due to fires, climate change and deforestation, with tree coverage declining by about 6 per cent since the year 2000.
According to the Global Forest Watch, tree cover loss due to fires reached a high in 2015, with 86 per cent of all loss for that year in Tunisia due to wildfires.
In Tunisia, the peak fire season typically begins in late June and lasts about 13 weeks. But recent years, fires have become more common, raising serious concerns.
Last year, a wildfire in a forest near the Tunisian border with Algeria killed dozens of people and injured many others.
Tunisia witnessed a large wave of fires last summer that spread across many areas of the country, causing damage to forests and wildlife. The country recorded more than 250 forest fires across the country’s governorates, according to civil protection units, destroying more than 5,000 hectares – an increase of 11 per cent from the year before.