Fires are burning across Lebanon during a record heatwave.
Lebanon struggled this week to fight its worst wildfires in decades after a heatwave and strong winds caused fires in the pine tree-dense western mountains to spread to towns south of Beirut.
The fires are part of a brutal worldwide fire season that has also seen blazes in Brazil, the forests of the Congo Basin in Africa, and Siberia. In Lebanon, an estimated 3,700 acres burned and thousands of people from southern Lebanese towns, like Damour and the Chouf region, were forced to evacuate.
The Red Cross in Lebanon said 18 people have been hospitalized and 88 received emergency medical care. One person is confirmed dead as a result of the fire.
“We shouldn’t be surprised — no one was prepared for this,” said George Mitri, a professor and director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at Lebanon’s University of Balamand and an expert in forest fires, in an interview with Vox. He estimated around 200 fires have broken out in total.
A 2017 report by European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that almost 65 percent of Lebanese fires occurred in forested areas. With the increase of urban sprawl in the country, this week’s fires happened when blazes spread to the nearby cities.
“We have been building away in Lebanon, breaking into our forests more and more,” said Nadim Farjalla, an expert on the environment and climate change at the American University of Beirut. “Humans doing things like this often results in a reaction.”
The severity of the fires and how quickly they spread resulted from the lack of resources devoted to the maintenance of forests overall, Mitri said.
“Managing the forest is essential— we have very dense Mediterranean biomass in our forests and it provides a lot of fuel,” he said. “But they have been ignored, abandoned. It’s not a priority for the government.”
Before the fires, Lebanon experienced a heatwave: Temperatures were several degrees higher than the maximum temperature of recorded years for October. Mitri said he issued several warnings about the increased threat of forest fires at the beginning of the dry season, which started in June. But the Lebanese government did not adopt any additional fire prevention or forest management measures, he said.
“Lebanese Civil Defense firefighters aren’t equipped to fight forest fires,” said Mitri. “We still have fires burning even after the rain, like hot spots. There just aren’t enough human resources — firefighting resources — to fight these fires.”
2019 has been a particularly bad year for wildfires around the world. Recently, fires have been burning in the Amazon, Australia, and California. In the past few months, parts of Turkey, Russia, France, Greece, Indonesia, the Canary Islands, and the Arctic were also ravaged by wildfires, often causing chaotic evacuations.
Each of these wildfires resulted from a combination of long-term and short-term weather and environmental factors. But trends linked to global warming are also making wildfire seasons longer and more severe around the world. In particular, climate change means spells of extremely hot, dry weather are becoming more frequent in many regions around the world, increasing the potential for devastating wildfires.