By Simona Sikimic
The Daily Star
A two-month training drive for Civil Defense and Lebanese Army personnel has now started in earnest to mitigate the risk of the upcoming annual fire season.
A two-month training drive for Civil Defense and Lebanese Army personnel has now started in earnest to mitigate the risk of the upcoming annual fire season.
BEIRUT: Forest fires in 2011 are expected to exceed the devastation seen last year, experts told The Daily Star this week, as Lebanese Army and Civil Defense teams carried out fire prevention training drills in anticipation of the upcoming fire season.

“The risk of forest fires will be higher [in 2011]. It’s going to be a tough year,” said Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, director general of Lebanese nongovernmental organization Association for Forests, Development and Conservation. “The last rain we had was very dangerous for forest fires.
“It will encourage the plants to grow … and in summer we will have a very thick load of possible fuel that will be able to burn very quickly and easily, because we are not giving attention to cleaning the areas in time,” she added.

The Civil Defense, charged with heading national firefighting operations, shares the concerns, with George Abu Moussa, director of Civil Defense forest fire operations, describing the high grass, expected to shoot up as a result of the recent rains, as a “major cause of fires.”

A two-month training drive for Civil Defense and Lebanese Army personnel has now started in earnest to mitigate the risk of the upcoming annual fire season, which ravages Lebanon between June and November, burning on average in excess of 1,500 hectares annually.

“The training we are conducting is very important and is increasing our level of preparedness,” said Abu Moussa, commenting about fire clearing and fighting exercises carried out by the Civil Defense in the Chouf, Thursday.

The first ever operational exercises for the new fleet of Puma helicopters also took place Thursday at Beirut airport, where some 35 members from Civil Defense and army teams carried out drills on how to use the firefighting helicopters.

Ten Puma helicopters were donated to Lebanon by the UAE last year, but were delivered after the close of the fire season. They will now be used to combat blazes for the first time, with expectations riding high that they will help crews deliver larger quantities of water more quickly to hard to reach areas.

For now, however, the fleet will not operate at full capacity. AFDC, which is heading the training with assistance from the U.S. Forestry Service, has not been able to equip all the helicopters and is seeking out more funds to kit out the full force.

The overall ability of the helicopters to compensate for severe, on-the-ground, manpower shortages has also been called into question.

“There is a misconception that when you have the helicopter the fire will be over, but this is not the case at all. They can never extinguish fires alone and always need base support,” said Bou Fakhreddine. “Even in the U.S. … statistics show that helicopters contribute just 5 percent.”

With fire risks growing from year-to-year as a result of global warming and bad land management practices, Lebanon’s forests remain in danger.

“We are doing our best and we will fight with all our capacity, but you can only ever do so much with the resources you are given,” said Abu Moussa. “We’re ready, but as everyone knows, it is difficult.”

With only just over 2,000 volunteers available nationwide during high alerts and around 1,000 at normal times, Civil Defense teams are heavily understaffed and ultimately unprepared to deal with the mounting challenges unassisted.

From 1983, when measurements first began to 2007, average annual loss used to be between 1,000 to 2,000 hectares. However, the devastating fires of 2007, when some 4,000 hectares were burned, acted as a “turning point.”

Since 2007, “we have been exceeding the average. Now it is between 2,000 to 3,000 hectares because the least we are losing is 2,000,” Bou Fakhreddine said.

Greater coordination between various government agencies, in addition to the Civil Defense and Lebanese Amy, are seen as vital if the challenges are to be overcome.

But with lax implementation of existing laws to prevent fires and the ongoing impasse in government, further delaying the adoption of a three year forest fire fighting strategy, progress has been slow.

“We are not yet ready, we are trying to improve our capacities in terms of equipment, in terms of people trained but so far we are not sufficiently well trained,” said Bou Fakhreddine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2011, on page 3.

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