Fire prevention strategy key to Maghreb’s future

August 13, 2017

Recent scenes of fires blazing across hec­tares of parched grassland and cork oak forests in Tu­nisia bring to mind the chilling open­ing lines of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Fire and Ice.”

“Some say the world will end in fire,

“Some say in ice,” Frost wrote in a poem first published in 1920.

Disastrous episodes have oc­curred in Tunisia’s north-western districts of Ain Draham and Fer­nana and in the north-central area of Jebel Bargou. Later, Sejnane, a town and commune in the gover­norate of Bizerte, was also hit by blazes.

About 2,000 hectares of forest burned over the course of five days, Tunisian authorities said. While most of the outbreaks were attributed to a severe heatwave engulfing the country, an investigation was launched into suspected cases of arson.

Environmental experts said wildfires are not strange phe­nomena in themselves. They occur naturally for a number of reasons: A lightning strike in the dry and hot season of summer or even a sparkle of sunlight that glistens through a dew drop, can, like a magnifying glass, trigger a fire that quickly spreads.

However, when fire spreads fast and in many different areas, human involvement is considered likely. In both Tunisia and Algeria, officials confirmed that arsonists had set some of the wildfires.

Regardless of how the fires started, citizens of the Maghreb should consider it their collective responsibility to prevent such incidents.

In the midst of the unusual heat­wave that has seen temperatures exceed 47 degrees Celsius, authori­ties should raise the level of alert and prepare for the worst.

In Tunisia and neighbouring Algeria, which has lost more than 15,000 hectares of forest to this summer’s fires, there is need to improve fire control methods and response strategies.

Houses in rural areas need to be kept free of surrounding shrubs and small trees. Controlled fires should be set when underbrush can be burned. Outbreaks should be swiftly controlled to stop their spread, which can be exacerbated by heat and wind.

Ultimately, countries in the Maghreb need to be better pre­pared to fend off recurring fires. One of the most pressing needs is more equipment since the gear on hand is stretched thin. They espe­cially need protective gear, water hoses and fire-fighting aircraft, all of which are crucial for stopping fires in remote and mountainous areas.

Also urgent is the need to fund and train more skilled fire-fighting crews, including community volunteers who can act quickly if similar disasters take place.

During recent outbreaks in Jendouba, witnesses reported seeing an Algerian aircraft rescuing locals and battling fires. However, Colonel Mounir Riabi, the regional director of the Civil Defence denied Algerian involve­ment, saying they were busy extin­guishing fires that were spreading in their own territory.

If the two countries were better prepared, however, they could have coordinated efforts and lim­ited the damage that took place.

While the fires are now extin­guished, the threat is far from over. As the effects of climate change are further felt, the Maghreb is projected to experience a new threshold of extreme weather, which will magnify the risk of disasters, experts said.

It is not just fire to be concerned about. In the winter, ice and snow, are a menace. Tunisia’s memories of heavy snowfall last January are still as vivid as ever: Scenes of blocked roads, trapped motorists and suffering locals demonstrated just how bitter the reality of un­checked snowfall can be.

Whether fire or ice, it is time for the Maghreb and the world to con­sider how to deal with the threat of extreme weather and reduce the effects of climate change. The ecological balance and quality of life in the Maghreb is at stake.