Wildfires across Algeria kill at least 37 people

The North African country has repeatedly been accused of failing to invest in much-needed firefighting technology.

At least 38 people have been killed in wildfires in 14 provinces in Algeria [Algerian Civil Defense/Anadolu Agency]

Wildfires have killed at least 37 people and injured dozens more across northern Algeria, with the fires continuing to rage in several areas of the North African country.

The blazes on Wednesday ravaged 14 of Algeria’s provinces, with residents having previously complained of a lack of government support and readiness during its annual, and deadly, wildfire season.

Most of the victims were reported in El Tarf province, near the northern Algeria-Tunisian border, where 34 people were found dead. The death toll included a family of five found in their home and eight people on a public bus whose driver was surprised by flames while traveling in a mountainnous region.

“Most of the victims in El Tarf are vacationers who came to enjoy paradisiac beaches and enchanting landscapes,” Prime Minister Aïmene Benabderrahmane said.

He and several government members arrived in El Tarf on Thursday. The prime minister said the Algerian state would support the victims’ families and pay for renovation work and compensation for the loss of livestock and beehives. The region is also known for its farming industry.

One person died in Souk Ahras, south of El Tarf. Two other people died in the region of Setif, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) east of Algiers, the North African nation’s capital.

At least 200 more people have suffered burns or respiratory problems, according to various Algerian media.

Algerian television showed people fleeing their burning homes, women carrying children in their arms.

People were also seen fleeing in Souk Ahras province, which also borders Tunisia, with local media reporting that 350 residents had been evacuated.

The fire service said Thursday afternoon that 1,700 firefighters had been deployed to battle the fires, of which 24 were still raging.

Fire trucks are seen in Setif, Algeria [Algerian Civil Defense/Anadolu Agency]
Earlier, Algerian Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud said 39 fires broke out in 14 regions on Wednesday alone and that blazes have ravaged 3,200 hectares (over 12 square miles) of forests and brush since the beginning of August.

The situation underscored the perennial criticism that Algiers has not invested enough in firefighting technology, including specialised planes, forcing it to seek help from the international community.

In 2021, Algeria appealed to the European Union, already preoccupied with fires in Greece and Turkey, to send water bomber planes amid that year’s deadly fires.

Algiers blamed those blazes, which killed 90 people and destroyed more than 4.1 million hectares (10.1 million acres) of forest, on “arsonists” connected to separatist groups and foreign governments.

Writing for Al Jazeera last year, Youcef Bouandel, a professor of political science at Qatar University, argued that the “climate of mistrust and paranoia” surrounding fires in the country had further undermined government preparedness and led to higher death tolls.

Algerian authorities earlier this year also reportedly cancelled a contract with a Spanish company for the supply of seven water bomber planes following a diplomatic dispute between Algiers and Madrid, according to the Mena Defense website.

Firefighters after the scene of a wildfire in Setif, Algeria [Algerian Civil Defense/Anadolu Agency]
The discord came after Madrid reversed decades of neutrality on Western Sahara and supported a plan to grant the Moroccan-controlled region internal autonomy, while denying sovereignty.

Algeria has long supported Western Sahara’s independence movement. Madrid and Algiers began to gradually resume economic ties in July.

Observers say yearly wildfires have increased in Algeria, amid rising global temperatures.

Since the start of August, 106 fires have broken out in the country, destroying more than 2,500 hectares (6,178 acres) of woodland.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies