September 07, 2012 01:17 AM
By Mohammad Zaatari

SIDON, Lebanon: A huge fire erupted in Sidon’s landfill early Thursday morning, forcing a shutdown of the industrial sector of the southern city and blanketing the area with thick plumes of smoke and toxic fumes.

The blaze is so extensive that it may require at least 48 hours to extinguish, a source at the Civil Defense Department said. The source, who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, said Civil Defense teams and the Sidon Fire Department had drawn up a plan to put out the fire, which broke out at 4 a.m.

“We need 48 hours to do the job,” the source said, explaining that the situation was complicated by the fact that the landfill, teeming with waste of all kinds, was difficult to access.

Smoke hung over parts of Sidon all day while wind pushed the garbage cloud toward the city and reduced visibility on the main highway. The cloud of smoke was so thick it reached the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian Camp and the east of the city.

The fourth fire in less than a month in Sidon, the blaze has raised questions of whether arson, with commercial or political motives, was to blame. Security sources said investigators were looking for a link among the blazes.

All of the fires took place less than a month after the Sidon municipality signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Program to supervise the project of reducing the size of the eyesore dump that has polluted the city’s coastal waters. The fire caused large amounts of waste and soil to fall into the sea, worsening an already desperate coastal-pollution problem.

Firefighters used both a pressurized mix of foam and water as well as sand to extinguish the fire. A Lebanese Army helicopter was called in for help in stopping the blaze from spreading beyond the confines of the landfill.

By Thursday night the flames were extinguished but smoke kept rising from the dump.

Firefighters had to descend by rope to the edge of the dump to douse the blazes that flared up in difficult location. They also faced difficulties in securing water because their water supply was not sufficient due to lack of electricity.

A thick blanket of smoke and haze settled over the city and surrounding areas, prompting Sidon hospitals to urge firefighters to boost their efforts to extinguish the fire.

Some 30 Sidon-based firefighters, backed by 10 local volunteers and seven fire trucks, were still battling the fire nine hours after it ignited.

With the sky was covered with smoke rising from the fire in the dump, Sidon’s nearby industrial sector decided to shut down.

MP Bahia Hariri called the Army and Interior Ministry and sought backup in fighting the blaze.

Sidon Mayor Mohammad Saudi who attributed the fire to emissions of methane from deep in the dump, refused to consider arson as a cause.

Saudi said that Sidon would soon be rid of its dangerous dump after municipal efforts to reduce its footprint begin in October.

Due to the smog resulting from the smoke, motorists were urged to turn on their vehicles’ hazard lights when driving along the stretch of the coastal highway parallel to the fire.

It was the fourth blaze in Sidon’s landfill in as many weeks. Police have yet to launch a probe to determine the circumstances behind all of the fires.

A huge blaze that broke out in the landfill on Aug. 17 was extinguished only with the intervention of a Lebanese Army helicopter.

A smaller fire a few days later was quickly contained and put out.

A large fire erupted at the landfill Monday, but firefighters managed to douse it within a few hours=.

Sources at Sidon’s municipality told The Daily Star at the time that they also feared the fire had been the result of arson. They said two scavengers sifting through trash hours before the fire broke out that day were later briefly questioned by Sidon’s City Hall police but released due to lack of evidence.

The same sources insisted Thursday that the fires were deliberate.

The landfill, which has been used as a site for the disposal of garbage for years, measures about 30 meters in height, and reportedly contains about 500,000 bottles.

Also Thursday, controversial Sheikh Ahmad Assir held a sit-in to protest the “burning” of the landfill at the city’s municipal building.

“When the mayor was appointed he promised to resolve the issue of the dump, we tell him today either you solve it or you leave,” said Mahmoud Mashlla at the Assir protest

“You’ve made so many promises but have delivered on so little,” said another demonstrator.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 07, 2012, on page 4.

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