The volunteers of Akkar Trail – just 15 in total – are veterans by now.
They had to be. Amid Lebanon’s state dysfunction and economic paralysis, they have taken it upon themselves to fight wildfires to preserve their corner of the country.
“One wildfire teaches us more than a million fire drills ever could,” says Khaled Taleb, the eco-tour guide-turned-firefighter who founded Akkar Trail.
Akkar, Lebanon’s northernmost governorate, is beautiful, green, mountainous, and remote.
It is also exceptionally prone to wildfires due to its elevation
The year 2020, when Akkar Trail first began fighting wildfires, was infamously bad for Lebanon.
The small country was already suffering one of the world's worst financial meltdowns, which began in 2019 and has left more than 80 per cent of its population impoverished. It was caught in the throes of the global Covid-19 pandemic amid severe medicine shortages.
Then came the massive August 4 Beirut port explosion – one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history – which killed at least 218 people.
And of course, there were the wildfires, which devastate Lebanon’s wildlife yearly, and which the state was especially ill-equipped to prioritise that year.
When uncontrolled wildfires raged through northern Akkar's Valley of Death, the civil defence – the state’s only official firefighting response team – was unable to navigate the high altitudes and winding routes.
But Mr Taleb was well versed in Akkar’s treacherous roads and mountain passes.
When he heard news of the fire blazing near his village and saw videos of raging flames consuming the mountain, Mr Taleb quickly gathered five friends into his car, brought with him what tools he could, and drove towards the fire.
The group walked a hiking trail until they reached the flames, joining people from nearby villages who came together to help the civil defence put out the fires.
It took hours, and – beyond the desire to save the forest and prevent the blaze from reaching nearby villages – the group had no idea what they were doing.
“Next week there was another wildfire,” Mr Taleb said.
That week, the group hiked seven kilometres to extinguish a huge blaze in one of Akkar’s largest cedar and juniper forests, putting their lives in danger.
“We used any tool at our disposal, even drinking water,” he said.
Lebanon’s junipers and its iconic cedar trees are endangered due to uncontrolled overgrazing, illegal felling and climate change that is at least partially responsible for the country's lengthening wildfire season.
One of Akkar Trail’s logos features a man throwing water from a plastic water bottle on to a flaming juniper tree – from a photo Mr Taleb snapped during a firefighting operation.
Beating wildfires with just two pickup trucks
The group estimates that wildfires destroyed more than 600 hectares of Akkar’s forests in 2020 alone, and a total of more than 3,000 hectares of land in the governorate.
But now, Mr Taleb said, the group has reduced wildfires in the area by 96 per cent “using only two pickup trucks.”
“Not by ourselves, of course,” he clarified. “The civil defence is always there and so are volunteers from other villages.”
In the beginning, the civil defence trained and assisted Akkar Trail’s volunteers. Meanwhile Mr Taleb scrambled to fit a Nissan pickup truck with a water tank and pressure hose to fight wildfires and carry out mountain rescues.
Three years later, the volunteer group’s strength is their knowledge of the terrain and the ability to complement the civil defence’s budgetary and physical limitations.
Now they have two fully-fitted firefighting trucks – much smaller than the average firetruck and customised especially for Akkar’s rugged terrain.
They have developed equipment to cut through fire debris; learnt to dig firebreaks; and offer training on effective firefighting. They have also developed methods to document and preserve the area’s endangered wildlife.
“It’s dangerous work,” said Mohammad Sultan, a 19-year-old car mechanic who has volunteered as a firefighter for Akkar Trail for the past year. “Some fires are terrifying, honestly. But it’s worth it to protect people and the environment.”
Ali Taleb, 25, became interested in the environment when he was 12 years old.
He would accompany his older brother Khaled on hikes, where he gained an appreciation for Akkar’s beauty.
It was Khaled who encouraged him to become an agricultural engineer.
Now Ali takes great pride in the scientific wing at Akkar Trail’s headquarters.
It contains an environmental studies lab, a herbarium and an insect museum. The facility also hosts an archive of Akkar’s rare wildlife species – it's a “full service” headquarters designed to preserve and reforest Akkar amid climate change, illegal felling and wildfires.
Documenting plants and trees “helps to know how to intervene and ensure their return following a wildfire”, the younger Mr Taleb said.
The herbarium contains thousands of seeds and seedlings, all of endangered trees and plants.
“We save what we can,” he told The National. “If the state had been doing this before, we wouldn’t have to do it.”