Bushfires threaten to destroy Lebanon's ancient mountain forests
Underfunded firefighting teams struggle to fight flames in highest reaches, home to rare species found only in region
In the highest forests of the Lebanese mountains, the dark green leaves of the legendary Cedrus libani fan out as far as the eye can see.
These cedar trees, the unmistakable triangular shape of which takes pride of place on Lebanon’s flag, are under threat as bushfires tear through some of the country’s most remote areas.
A 2014 model created by a team from the Land and Natural Resources programme at Balamand University projected that in 2020, climatic shifts and vulnerabilities would put forests in mountainous areas at an increased risk of fire damage.
Their prediction has so far proved to be accurate.
More than 400 hectares of vegetation have already been burnt across Lebanon this year, mostly at high altitudes, said George Mitri, the programme’s director.
“This is a relatively large number for this stage in the fire season, so we can expect this year’s bushfires to be well above average,” Mr Mitri said.
Lebanon's fire season typically runs from late June to October, but fires have ignited as early as March and as late as December.
Between 1,200ha and 1,500ha of vegetation are burnt every year.
In early October 2019, more than 100 fires raged across Lebanon in the worst bushfire season in decades, destroying more than 1,200ha of forest in three days.
At least one person died from smoke inhalation and hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes in the Chouf mountain region.
This year, vegetation that has dried out over the summer months, combined with above-average temperatures soaring over 40°C, have created the ideal conditions for bushfires.
Lebanon’s extreme economic crisis, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, has also raised the likelihood of bushfire outbreaks, Mr Mitri said.
During countrywide coronavirus lockdowns, many Lebanese escaped to their villages in rural areas, while the economic crisis spurred some to start growing their own food.
“Increased rural activity naturally translates to increased fire risk,” Mr Mitri said.
Over the past few weeks, dozens of fires have ravaged sparse forests at altitudes of more than 1,000 metres, in areas such as Akkar, along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria.
Lebanon’s high forests are made of cedar and juniper trees that are hundreds of years old and cannot easily be replaced.
These coniferous trees, unlike other species, do not naturally regenerate after fires, said Joseph Bechara, a fire project manager with local charity the Lebanese Reforestation Initiative.
Just over the border, Syria has also suffered intense bushfires this summer, scorching hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland and wiping out the livelihoods of thousands of farmers.
The rocky terrain of Lebanon’s highest mountains is also home to extremely rare species of flora and fauna.
The Iris basaltica flower, for example, is found onky in mountainous areas of north Lebanon and eastern Syria.
“The ecological cost of fires at these high altitudes is enormous,” said Abdelhadi Saab, an agricultural engineer with the volunteer-led environmental group Akkar Trail.
“These are ancient natural forests, mostly untouched by humans.”
Most of the fires in Akkar this year broke out in the late afternoon, when temperatures are at their highest, Mr Saab said.
He said there were dozens of potential sparks, from carelessly discarded cigarettes to glass bottles catching the sunlight.
Many of Lebanon’s most biodiverse nature reserves are in areas highly vulnerable to fire this year.
They include the Unesco world heritage site Cedars of God in Bcharre, and the cedar reserves in Chouf, which was among the worst-affected regions last year.
Firefighting in these remote mountain areas is particularly challenging, as ordinary lorries have no access to their steep slopes and valleys.
Lebanon’s Civil Defence firefighting teams are also woefully under-equipped and underfunded.
When fires broke out across Lebanon in October 2019, volunteers from the Civil Defence lacked basic equipment.
Three firefighting Sikorsky S-70 helicopters were unable to offer support because the government had failed to maintain them.
In June, just as temperatures began to rise, the cash-strapped government approved a request from the Defence Ministry to sell all three of them.
“After the fires of October last year, nothing changed,” Mr Mitri said.
The lack of human and material resources mean firefighters can extinguish only small, limited fires that break out at the start of the bushfire season in late spring, he said.
On a recent visit to civil defence centres in Mount Lebanon, Mr Bechara and his team discovered that water outlets essential to firefighting did not work in 14 locations.
“We do everything we can as an NGO to reduce fire risk but there’s only so much we can do,” he said.
Two areas of forest in Akkar, which the reforestation initiative replanted last winter after they were destroyed in earlier fires, were scorched again this summer.
In northern Akkar, one firefighting lorry covers an area of 160 square kilometres and the rocky terrain means responses are often slow, Mr Saab said.
Whenever the Akkar Trail team hears of a fire outbreak, they rush to the site and do the best they can to extinguish it with small hoses, bottles of water and basic agricultural tools.
They have launched a fundraiser to buy a lorry equipped with a 1,000-litre water tank, pumps and hoses.
Mr Bechara says another key challenge is the state’s failure to prepare for the bushfire season.
In 2009, the Cabinet adopted a national strategy for forest fire management.
But it has never been implemented.
“They wait for the problem to happen and then try to find a solution,” Mr Bechara said. “We need proper nationwide standards and guidelines.”
Given that Lebanon’s fire season typically peaks in September and October, it is likely that they will continue to ignite in the coming weeks. Even rain may not be able to save the natural landscape.
“A few drops of rain can release methane – a highly flammable gas – from the soil, and increase the fire risk,” Mr Bechara said.
As an Akkar native who has a deep connection to the region’s ancient forests, Mr Saab feels that the loss of the invaluable landscape is a personal one.
“All this amazing nature was burnt for no reason and it could have been prevented,” he said. “It’s truly heartbreaking.”
Updated: September 17, 2020 04:00 AM