Lebanon's failure to prepare ignites anger over wildfires

Three of Lebanon’s firefighting helicopters were unable to be used in emergency efforts because of a lack of funds for maintenance, prompting widespread criticism.

Saturday 19/10/2019
Up in smoke. People inspect the remains of cars and shops that were burned in a wildfire in the town of Damour, 15km south of Beirut, October 15.  (AP)
Up in smoke. People inspect the remains of cars and shops that were burned in a wildfire in the town of Damour, 15km south of Beirut, October 15. (AP)

BEIRUT - Light rain appears to have moderated the spread of wildfires that threatened Lebanon with one of its worst natural disasters in years.

Wildfires occur regularly in Lebanon but Raymond Khattar, director-general of Lebanon’s Civil Defence, described the more than 100 blazes that recently affected the country as the worst to have hit Lebanon in decades.

Riot police equipped with water cannons were called to the Mount Lebanon region after fire engines in the area became overwhelmed. Lebanon’s National News agency reported that soldiers from the United Nations’ Lebanon mission joined civil defence volunteers to fight the blazes.

Air fire crews from Cyprus, Greece and Jordan, with others expected from Europe, headed to Lebanon to help battle the fires. However, three of Lebanon’s firefighting helicopters were unable to be used in emergency efforts because of a lack of funds for maintenance, prompting widespread criticism.

While the cause for the fires was unknown — although arson was suspected in some cases — high temperatures and strong winds led to the fires raging beyond the control of the emergency services.

The fires, which spread into neighbouring Syria, rocked Lebanon’s self-image, already battered by failing public services and fears of currency devaluation. “People are feeling a wide range of negative feelings: heartbreak, anger, frustration,” Lebanese journalist Kareem Chehayeb said. “Wildfires in Lebanon are not new but the inability to manage it and to let it spread the way it did shocked many.”

The absence of Lebanon’s firefighting helicopters sparked anger among Lebanese citizens. The three Sikorsky helicopters were bought by Lebanon in 2009. The Daily Star newspaper reported the helicopters stopped functioning some five years ago for want of adequate maintenance.

“Our voices have become hoarse telling this government to set up a ministry for disasters and emergencies but we can’t expect any achievements from a state that won’t even invest in its basic institutions like the Civil Defence,” Elie Mahfoud, the head of the opposition Taghyir Movement, said on Twitter.

Mahfoud’s anger over the government’s failure to prepare for such emergencies or maintain the helicopters was echoed throughout social media, Chehayeb said.

“That something that is basic and relatively inexpensive as taking care of them [the helicopters] was not prioritised during this time of the year was extremely upsetting. Even the former interior minister, who was around a decade ago when Lebanon bought them [the helicopters], went on a Twitter tirade,” he said.

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