Siria, incendio (La Presse)

Agricultural Industry and Forests Devastated as Wildfires Hit Syria

Two weeks into battling the raging wildfires that have devoured large agricultural lands particularly in western Syria, the sheer size of the unprecedented ecological disaster and its grave effects on some of the country’s most cherished and historical forests as well as fertile agricultural  regions has started to  settle in among hundreds of thousands of heartbroken farmers as well as the population as a whole.

Fortunately, by now most of the fires exacerbated by shifting strong winds have now been put out following the collaboration of fire brigades from all over the country, civil defense units, local volunteers and most recently Syrian army units aided by locally-modified helicopters as firefighting machines. Over the past couple of days, it was reported that servicemen from the Russian Hmeimeem air base near the coastal city of Latakia, along with fire-fighting tanker planes from Iran and Russia (Syria’s strongest allies) were also taking part in efforts to contain the raging inferno.

InsideOver Firsthand Account of Syrian Wildfires

Initial investigation into the fires which broke out in a number of agricultural areas in many central and western Syrian forested and agricultural areas including some of the richest natural reserves, have revealed some deliberate arson attacks as well acts of negligence that have resulted in a number of arrests.

InsideOver headed to some of the worst hit areas in the Mediterranean provinces of Latakia and Tartous in order to gather a firsthand account of what has exactly happened and interview some Syrian officials including an exclusive with the Governor of Latakia, before filing this report.

When I met with Governor of Latakia General Ibrahim Khodr Al Salem the man looked calculated, calm, proud and relieved that his teams have managed to put out all fires that had broken out in several parts of the province fairly quickly and efficiently. Earlier in the week, a forestry official in Latakia, Hassan Fares, stated that: “Numerous fires have been put out, others brought under control, but some fires continue to rage in some areas” of Latakia.

High wind as well as steep terrain were two major obstacles to the massive effort exerted in order to control and put out the wild flames and to fire trucks being able to reach the fire- hit areas quickly. However, all fires in Latakia are now extinguished.

Largest ‘Fir and Cedar’ Nature Reserve in Middle East Badly Hit

Governor Al Salem told InsideOver that over 50 fires in afforested as well agricultural areas have been successfully put out, thanks to the collective effort of local fire brigades and centers created following the massive wild fire in Qardaha — President Bashar al Assad’s home town — last year.

“There was no need for intervention by any units from outside Latakia”, the Governor reiterated, thanking the “brave men who efficiently managed to put out many fires before expanding into large-scale infernos”.

The Fir and Cedar Reserve, arguably the largest of its kind in the Middle East, was worst hit by the recent fires. The protected forest extends over 1,300 hectares, 20 percent of which is in Latakia. The rest is in neighboring Hama province.

“Only one hectare of the Reserve in Latakia was damaged, and quickly isolated by a fire belt as well heavy machinery as well as fire engines, two of which were later dispatched to Hama to assist in their fire battling effort”, the Governor added.

Although summer fires are common in Syria, as they are in many other countries around the world, Syrians claim that these widespread fires are worse than usual and some of the most destructive in recent years. However, General Al Salem told me that unfortunately not all fires were of nature’s making; some were deliberately started either by “arson attacks and negligent behaviors by farmers burning dry shrubs and weeds in their fields.”

“Some fires erupted after men on motorbikes were seen illegally crossing some of the protected forests; a number of arrests have been made”, the Governor added.

Hundreds of Square Kilometers Burned Down in Tartous and Hama

Although the four Syrian provinces of Latakia, Tartous, Hama and Homs were hit by the latest fire, Hama, which boasts one of the country’s most fertile plains, Al Ghab, and the second most important port city of Tartous (some 70 miles from Latakia) are widely believed to have been worst hit by the wave of wild blazes. In several cases the fire came so close to rural houses and residential districts of a number of towns that it threatened the life of local residents. Thankfully, no lives were lost as a result of the blazes or in the fire-battling operations. However, dozens of families in certain areas were evacuated as a precautionary measure or forced to flee the approaching inferno.

At my request, the Governor’s press office in Tartous provided me with a written update of the situation which reports several and scattered fires across the province totaling 56 wild blazes in forested areas as well as 323 other fires in agricultural lands. The statement mentions some additional 495 other fires which hit houses and other facilities across the province. The crisis team headed by Governor Safwan Abu Saada supervises the collective effort for battling the widespread fires. A number of emergency procedures have been implemented or are planned for in order to tackle or prevent such disasters in the future.

Meanwhile, Hama’s Governor Mohammed Al-Hazouri said the blaze had torched several square miles of agricultural land, in addition to several key natural reserve and afforested mountains, in his province alone. The blaze torched thousands of aged forest trees as well as olive, citrus and other vegetation fields. High winds have reignited some new fires across the governorate where fire battling efforts have been stretched to their maximum limit, with additional help flooding in from all over the country.

Need is Syria’s ‘Mother of Invention’!

With no external help and aggravated by a chain of strangling US as well as European sanctions and economic boycotts, Syria was left alone at least for the first week of the firefighting mayhem. As some rugged terrain, steep and hard-to-reach areas ravaged by recent fires proved to be a major challenge, and with the absence of any operational fire-fighting planes or helicopters, Syrian scientists quickly and ingeniously modified some the old Russian-built Mi choppers to become firefighting machines that proved extremely effective in areas utterly out of reach for fire engines and other land machinery. Large water carrying buckets and relevant release mechanisms were quickly manufactured and applied to the several-decades old helicopters flown by Syrian pilots who excelled in their new fire-fighting role.

Later this week, Iran was reported to have sent a firefighting plane in order to help Syria put out some fires that were still raging. Tehran unveiled an airplane equipped with a homegrown high-pressure water discharge systemin 2018. Russia is said to have joined in over the past few days, following a visit to Damascus by a high-ranking Russian delegation which was headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov and included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The delegation met with Assad, and the two sides are set to sign a comprehensive economic pact before the end of the year, that will reportedly render Trump’s sanctions on Syria completely useless and futile. However, the belated Iranian and Russian involvement in fighting the raging fires across Syria took place amid strong and widespread popular criticism and rage over Arab as well as allied attitude following the outbreak of devastating fires. The majority of Syrians vented their anger on social media platforms, with many questioning why Syria was left to fight the inferno alone, while its allies and Arab neighbors stood idly by.