Two killed as massive forest fires rage in Syria

Wildfires across parts of the country have so far killed two people and forced many to flee; Lebanon and Israel also hit by blazes.

A map marking the city of Tartus, in Syria, and Lebanon

Massive forest fires in war-torn Syria this week have killed at least two people and burned swaths of land, state media and officials said, as blazes also hit neighbouring Lebanon.

Syrian state television on Saturday morning broadcast scenes from the affected areas, where firefighters were working to extinguish the blazes.

It said hundreds of hectares had burned in the countryside of Syria’s coastal Latakia and Tartus provinces, and in the central Homs province.

The health ministry said two people died in Latakia province on Friday as a result of the fires, and that 70 people in the area were taken to hospital suffering from breathing difficulties.

Dozens of fires were burning, including “45 in Latakia and 33 in Tartus”, Syria’s Agriculture Minister Mohammed Hassan Qatana told a radio station on Friday.

“For the first time in its history, Syria is witnessing this [large] number of fires in a single day,” Qatana said.

The Latakia fire brigade said they were “facing the largest series of fires seen in Latakia province in years”.

Official news agency Sana said fires burned homes in the coastal city of Banias in Tartus province, as well as in Qardahah, President Bashar al-Assad’s hometown in Latakia.

Fires heavily damaged a building in Qardahah used as a storage for the state-owned tobacco company, part of which collapsed. The town’s local hospital was also surrounded by flames, according to local media reports.

State news agency SANA quoted Bassem Douba, director of the forestry department in Latakia’s agricultural department, as saying that dozens of people were evacuated from their homes in several villages. Those people sought refuge in central Latakia and Tartus, he said.

At least four firefighting teams were dispatched from the capital, Damascus, to assist in putting out the blazes. Some residents helped them by carrying water in buckets and pouring them on the flames.

The fires raging across Syria’s north, for the second time in months, were triggered by a heatwave that is unusual for this time of the year. They will likely cause considerable financial damage amid a deep economic crisis crippling the country.

Syria is currently suffering from an acute shortage in fuel ahead of the winter months, while power cuts have become more frequent across a country ravaged by more than nine years of war.

Among those affected by the devastating fires are landowners and farmers who rely on the agriculture sector to get by.

Images circulated on social media portrayed citrus and olive trees engulfed in flames in villages on the outskirts of Latakia.

Fires in Lebanon, Israel

Next door in Lebanon, meanwhile, there have been more than 100 fires across the country since Thursday, according to George Abu Musa, head of operations for the country’s civil defence.

“The situation is crazy, there are fires everywhere,” Abu Musa told the AFP news agency. “We have mobilised 80 percent of our personnel and almost all our centres in Lebanon,” he said.

There have been no reports of casualties in Lebanon.

Abu Musa said most of the blazes had been extinguished but some were still burning in the mountainous Chouf region in the south, and in Akkar in the north.

Military helicopters were assisting firefighters in “hard-to-reach” areas, he added. He was unable to identify the cause of the blazes but said wind and high temperatures were helping them spread.

Dozens of fires hit Lebanon in mid-October last year, amid unusually high temperatures and strong winds.

The government faced heavy criticism and accusations of ill-preparedness over its response to the 2019 blazes.

Days after Lebanon’s 2019 fires, mass protests broke out, triggered by proposed tax hikes but quickly transforming into months-long demonstrations against the ruling class, deemed by protesters as inept and corrupt.

Separately on Friday, authorities reported several fires across northern and central Israel and the occupied West Bank as temperatures soared, forcing thousands to evacuate.

Israeli police said in a statement firefighters and police forces evacuated 5,000 people as the fires spread for a second day on Saturday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies