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French Version

Forest fire rages amid Civil War munitions in Aley

Separate blazes break out in Baaklin, Burj Hammoud
Efforts were under way on Tuesday night to contain a massive fire that broke out Monday evening between the towns of Souk al-Gharb and Aley, southeast of Beirut.

The fire, which has affected the forested Ras al-Jabal region, a triangular stretch of land between the villages of Souk al-Gharb, Bimkine and Aitat, has been aggravated by exploding land mines left over from Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War.

A security official told The Daily Star that the fire, which began Monday evening in the Ras al-Jabal area and continued into Tuesday, has so far "spread over an area of at least two million square meters."

According to the official, "fire fighters began arriving at the scene at 10:45 a.m., along with two helicopters from the Lebanese Air Force."

Eighteen civil defense teams were also dispatched to the area, said the official, who added that the presence of land mines had complicated efforts by the "civil defense to reach the area to try to contain the fire."

An official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity likewise stated "Firefighters are having a hard time extinguishing the flames because the region is full of cluster bombs and land mines ... which are exploding and making the situation worse." Ras al-Jabal had been a front-line in the 1980s.

Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud Tuesday visited the scene of the fire and made several calls for assistance, resulting in UNIFIL helicopters joining forces with the Lebanese Army helicopters in an effort to contain the fires before it got dark. Baroud also called on state prosecutor Saeed Mirza to launch an investigation into the cause of the fire.

Brigadier Darwish Hobeika, head of the Civil Defense Brigadier, told The Daily Star that "90 percent of fires are being set deliberately," adding that land mines and the lack of accessible roads to the affected areas were making it difficult for firemen to reach the fires. He added the Civil Defense "was sparing no efforts" to protect houses in the affected areas.

No national fire management strategy exists in Lebanon. Last summer, 4,700 hectares of forest were destroyed in fires across the country.

Jawad Bou Ghanem, an expert on forest fires with the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC), told The Daily Star that the fire was "the biggest that has ever happened in Souk al-Gharb." Ghanem speculated that the most probable cause of the fire was "neglect," but said "the causes are still blurry. Weather is never the main cause of fire. Rather, weather, along with wind, contributes to the spread of fire."

The fire comes just two weeks after AFDC showcased new reforestation programs and prevention measures supported by a 350,000 euro ($550,000) grant from the European Union. The grant will help AFDC buy fire-fighting equipment, establish an early-warning system and open a central forest fires operations room from where fire-fighting measures can be coordinated. AFDC would hold a "formal assessment" of the fire Wednesday, added Ghanem.

Elsewhere in Lebanon on Tuesday, two other major fires also raged. A fire broke out Tuesday morning in the Chouf town of Baaklin, which destroyed around one square kilometer of pine and oak tree forest. Residents of Baaklin joined forces with members of the Lebanese Armed Forces and civil defense fire-fighters to try to control the fire, which caused substantial damage to nearby farms and businesses. Army helicopters were also called in.

Meanwhile a massive fire caused by burning tires at the Burj Hammoud waste dump raged Tuesday, with a massive plume of black smoke clearly visible on Beirut's skyline.

Antranik Masrelian, Mayor of Burj Hammoud claimed the fire was not set intentionally and that the municipality was not responsible for it. "We condemn this fire but we really can't do much because it is the responsibility of Sukleen," Lebanon's waste management company, he said. According to Masrelian, "In past years, Sukleen has burned tires at the site of the fire."

Sukleen's Communications and Public Relations manager Jad Naimeh told The Daily Star that Sukleen "had nothing to do with the Burj Hammoud dump, it is not one of our sites.

"Something like this would never happen at one of Sukleen's sites because we process our waste within 24 hours," Naimeh said, adding that "Burj Hammoud municipality should be asked" about the incident.

A doctor at the St. George University Medical Center in Achrafieh who wished to remain unnamed said smoke inhalation from fires "posed a bigger threat than people imagined." He said people with respiratory, cardiovascular and allergy problems were most at risk. "It seems the cloud of fire was quite low, and I could smell it from Achrafieh," said the doctor, urging people not to "underestimate how troublesome it [smoke] could be."

He said "the effects of smoke don't usually present themselves immediately," adding that "any kind of burning or incinerating in the open air should be prohibited."

Beirut 23-07-2008
The Daily Star

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