How citizen patrols are saving Syria’s forests from another season of wildfires

Villagers take it upon themselves to battle blazes that burnt 10,000 hectares in 2020 — and they are winning

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Twigs crack and leaves rustle underfoot as Qassem Alyan trudges through woodlands on the outskirts of his village near the Syrian city of Homs.

Together with his neighbours, they gather daily to go on patrols.

They are soldiers in a whole new battle that has stretched well beyond a country engulfed by over a decade of war — the fight against forest fires. In this war, he and others are beginning to turn the tide.

Forest fires have burnt 200 hectares of land this year, compared to 10,000 hectares in 2020, and five times less than the 1,000 hectares recorded in 2021, the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture said.

According to Forest Watch data, only 99 fire alerts were reported between 30 May and 12 September this year, compared to 183 in the same period of 2021, and a staggering 1,358 in 2020.

With the forest fire season nearing its end, the decrease has been attributed in part to citizen patrols like Mr Alyan’s creating an early warning system and deterring arsonists.

“This decrease is a result of public awareness and popular protection efforts by citizens, as well as to our increased firefighting readiness,” Engineer Amer Shaaban, director of the Homs Governorate Forestry Directorate — an area that suffers a large share of the fires every year — told The National.

Citizen patrols save lives and livelihoods

Last year’s fires consumed Alia Al Mohammed’s olive and citrus trees and reached her home. Ms Al Mohammed and her family were waiting to sell their harvest to buy diesel for the winter.

“I had to fight the fire with a small bowl filled with water from the tank on the roof of my house,” said Ms Al Mohammed, who lives in the Latakia countryside in Syria’s west. “As the fire approached, it became hard for me to escape.”

According to the World Wild Fund for Nature, under four per cent of wildfires have natural causes. The rest are caused by humans, whether by accident or by arson.

“The citizen patrols began last year in response to the great losses suffered due to human-made fires,” said Elias Dekar, from Telkalakh, 200km North of Damascus. Mr Dekar is one of the volunteers who started the initiative in his village and inspired others to follow suit elsewhere in the country.

He and a group of others from his village patrol forests and agricultural land to catch and deter arsonists, both on foot and in lorries filled with water tanks, ready to extinguish any fires they detect.

By being on the lookout for any signs of fires, the patrols play the vital role of an early warning system that alerts civil defence forces and fire brigades as soon as any blaze is detected, but they have also succeeded in deterring arsonists.

Issa Sultan saw a Facebook post of Mr Dekar’s campaign in Telkalakh, which inspired him to start his own patrols in Al Fakhoura, close to Latakia.

Those who could not join the patrols sent food, tools, water tanks or cars, Mr Sultan said.

“It embodied a state of solidarity and a popular solution that yielded fruit,” he said.

“This year we only had small fires that did not cause any significant damage to our agricultural lands.”

Mr Alyan says the action he and others in his village took has prevented a single fire from breaking out this summer.

“We could not bear what we heard in the media that the fires were premeditated,” he said.

“We discussed it as neighbours and coordinated with the whole village: Some people donated a water tank, others a car, and others volunteered to set up daily patrols.”

Global warming

Forest fires in the Mediterranean basin have increased since 2015, said Riyad Qara Falah, Professor of Climatology at the Department of Geography at Tishreen University.

“This is due to climate change, decreasing rainfall in the past ten years, and the rise in fuel prices which pushes people to rely on firewood for heating,” he told The National.

The average global temperature has increased by at least 1.1°C since 1880 but Syria has witnessed increases higher than the global average, reaching between 1.5-2.5°C.

“The massive damage caused by fires in the past led to greater public awareness,” Mr Qara said. “Forest roads were built to ensure easy access of fire lorries in the event of fires, in addition to civil groups creating an early warning system for fire detection and deterrence.”

Reforestation

This picture taken on June 24, 2020 shows a view of pistachio trees growing at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan, north of Hama in west-central Syria. - Pistachio farmers in central Syria are hoping that reduced violence will help revive cultivation of what was once one of the country's top exports. Maan, famed for its pistachio production, was controlled for years by jihadists and their rebel allies but it fell to the government at the start of the year following a months-long offensive. And as violence subsided, many formerly displaced farmers have returned, hoping this season will mark the revival of what was once a leading industry. (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Citizen fire patrols are not the only efforts in fighting forest fires. Reforestation campaigns are attempting to undo some of the damages caused by the fires. The Majd campaign, set to plant one million trees, is one of the largest.

“The team started its campaign in 2020 and continues this summer,” Muhammad Barakat Al Mutlaq, one of the organisers, told The National.

“We are close to completing the planting of one million trees in areas damaged by fires in the west of the country.

“We presented the idea to the Ministry of Agriculture and received approval and support, and organised community activities to fund some of our work.

“At first, we had to secure a sufficient number of volunteers, and then secure the plants from several sources, including the Ministry of Agriculture.”

The country, torn by war for more than 10 years, has not been spared the damage of global warming.

“We want to bring back the green cover that was lost to fires, whether deliberate or not,” Mr Al Mutlaq said.

“These days in Syria, we are in much need of such initiatives.”

This article has been published in collaboration with Egab

Updated: September 23, 2022, 6:00 PM
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