Why did wildfires claim so many lives in Algeria?

And what needs to be done to prevent a repeat of this tragedy?

Villagers attempt to put out a wildfire, in Achallam village, in the mountainous Kabylie region of Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, Algeria August 11, 2021. [Abdelaziz Boumzar/Reuters]

Summer wildfires have always been a fact of life in Algeria. Just last year, more than 100,000 acres went up in flames across the country. But this summer’s fires have been the most widespread, and devastating, the country has experienced since its independence from France in 1962.

Since August 9, more than 70 fires have been recorded across the northern Kabylia region of the country, including in the prefectures of Tizi Ouzou, Setif, Khenchela, Guelma, Bejaïa, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Boumerdès, Tiaret, Jijel, Medea, Tébessa, Blida and Skikda.

The mountainous province of Tizi Ouzou, the largest in Kabylia, was the worst hit. People lost their homes and livestock. Families who found themselves on the street with little or no possessions had to move into hotels, hostels and schools repurposed to provide emergency accommodation.

Early on in the crisis, it became apparent that firefighters and volunteers alone would not be able to put out the fires, so the Algerian government deployed the army to the region.

So far at least 69 people, including 28 soldiers, lost their lives in the fires. The death toll is expected to increase, as many more victims, civilian and military, remain in hospital in critical condition.

The unprecedented death toll – significantly higher than the ones recorded in other countries in the region experiencing similar fires – led President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to decree three days of national mourning for the victims. The president also announced that his government will compensate those affected.

But as Algeria tries to heal its wounds and support survivors trying to rebuild their lives, some important questions continue to occupy the national psyche: What caused the fires? Why did the country struggle to respond effectively to the crisis? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to prevent a repeat of this tragedy?

Arson or climate change?

President Tebboune, as well as his Minister of the Interior, Kamel Beldjoud, are insistent that “arsonists” were behind this devastation. While the authorities did not yet provide any evidence for their claims, they did arrest several individuals in relation to the fires. The region affected by the fires is the stronghold of the separatist MAK (The Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia) group. So many find the claims that MAK initiated, or at least exacerbated, the fires to weaken the central government plausible.

The climate of mistrust and paranoia created by the belief that the fires were not natural but man-made had some devastating consequences. In the town of Larbaa Nath Irathen in Tizi Ouzuou, an angry mob forcibly removed from a police van a man suspected of starting a fire, lynched him in the town’s main square, and set his dead body on fire. It has later been revealed that the victim was 35-year-old artist and activist Djamel Bensmail who came to the region to offer humanitarian aid to the local population. The investigation into the incident carried out by the relevant security services has led so far to “the arrest of 61 suspects involved, to varying degrees, in the killing, immolation and mutilation of a corpse, the destruction of property and assault against a police station”.

The widespread conviction in the country that arsonists were behind the fires also led to the sidelining of a factor that undoubtedly played a leading role in bringing about the fires: climate change. Indeed, climate change is intensifying droughts and creating the perfect conditions for wildfires to spread and cause unprecedented environmental, material and human damage across the region. Earlier this month, The EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said the Mediterranean has become a “wildfire hotspot” due to climate change, warning that many more such fires may be experienced in the future. The recent devastating wildfires in Greece and Turkey further confirmed that the increased impact of wildfires in Algeria is not only a result of domestic problems but part of a global environmental crisis.

What went wrong in Algeria’s response to the fires?

As Turkey and Greece recorded significantly lower death tolls than Algeria in the face of similarly widespread and intense wildfires, Algerians started to question why their state has been unable to respond as effectively to the crisis.

The international community’s relative indifference to the situation in Algeria and the lack of up-to-date firefighting technologies and equipment in the country has so far been presented as the leading reasons.

Indeed, this tragedy clearly demonstrated that in recent years there have not been any serious investment in the firefighting and forestry services in Algeria. Firefighters in the country are not adequately trained and equipped to deal with fires of this magnitude. Most importantly, Algeria does not have the necessary aerial firefighting power to respond to such fires efficiently. If the country had firefighting planes, they undoubtedly would have put out the fires more quickly and with fewer or no casualties. Firefighters did their best with limited equipment and no aerial support. They achieved some success in limiting the damage but overall proved powerless in tackling the blaze.

Acknowledging that its firefighters are not equipped to handle a crisis of this scale on their own, Algeria’s government sent in the military. But the soldiers too did not have the necessary equipment, or training, to quickly contain the blaze and keep themselves safe in the process. As a result, at least according to official numbers, 28 soldiers lost their lives in the fires.

The inaccessibility of the disaster zone was also an obstacle. The mountainous terrain that prevented fire engines from getting close to the blast made the operation extremely difficult.  As successive Algerian regimes failed to invest in forestry services, there was no plan in place to access these areas at a time of crisis.

Finally, the world turned a blind eye to the situation in Algeria for too long and international help did not come quickly enough to spare the country the devastation.

Early in the crisis, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI offered to help the Algerian authorities in their efforts to contain the fires. He said two firefighting planes were on standby, waiting for approval from Algiers, to fly to the affected areas of the Kabyle region. The relationship between Morocco and Algeria has been tense for decades, due to the two neighbouring nations’ conflicting stances on not only the Western Sahara conflict but also the separatist movement in Kabylia. Recently, the Moroccan ambassador to the United Nations referred to the Kabylia region as an “Algerian colony” and declared his support for the region’s right to self-determination. In response, Algiers recalled its ambassador to Rabat and left the door open to further measures. Hence, Algeria’s approval for Morocco’s offer of help never came.

Unwilling to accept any help from Morocco, the Algerian authorities turned to the wider international community, and particularly the European Union, for help. The EU agreed to dispatch two firefighting planes to Algeria, but only after they complete their missions to put out the fires in Greece and Turkey. It quickly became clear that Greece and Turkey were the EU’s priority, and helping Algeria was only an afterthought for the union.

On August 12, the EU finally sent two Canadair firefighting planes to Algeria. These planes successfully brought the blazes in Tizi Ouzou, as well as the nearby province of Bejaia, under control, before moving to deal with fires elsewhere in the northeast of the country.

The role the European Canadair planes played in putting out the fires further confirmed that had Algeria been in possession of firefighting planes in the first place, the number of casualties would have been lower.

What needs to be done?

Despite wildfires being a yearly occurrence in Algeria, the country has not experienced such devastation in its recent history. This year’s catastrophe showed the country’s vulnerability to these kinds of disasters. The Algerian authorities now need to take a number of steps to prevent the repeat of this tragedy in the future.

The state needs to establish a more comprehensive fire response system. Most importantly, it needs to invest in firefighting planes. For a country five times the size of France that is naturally vulnerable to wildfires, having a fleet of well-cared-for firefighting planes is a must. Thankfully, following this month’s tragedy, the Algerian Ministry of Defence announced its intention to buy eight Russian Beriev Be-200 Altair firefighting planes to tackle future fires.

Improving communication between fire and forestry departments across the country is another must. This would allow for the development of a national wildfire risk map, and help the authorities prepare for future crises and establish response plans.

The state should also invest in making Algeria’s mountainous rural regions more accessible. By maintaining existing infrastructure well and building new roads and facilities, the authorities can ensure that emergency services can respond to any crisis anywhere in the country quickly.

And finally, perhaps needless to say, Algeria needs to invest in its fire departments in terms of both training and equipment. The state owes it to its firefighters to create the conditions for them to do their jobs safely and efficiently.

According to the European Forest Fire Information System, the fire risk will remain high in Algeria for the foreseeable future. As communities try to rebuild after the devastation they experienced, it is the Algerian state’s utmost responsibility to ensure it does everything it can to prevent a repeat of this month’s tragic events.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.