As Lebanon’s Forests Burn, Researchers Seek Solutions

/ 13 Nov 2019

As Lebanon’s Forests Burn, Researchers Seek Solutions

Most eyes in Lebanon have been watching the protests for the past two weeks, but just before that, attention was focused on the fires that were burning and destroying large swathes of the country’s much-loved cedar forests.

“The news cycle moves very quickly here,” says George Mitri, an associate professor in the department of environmental sciences at the University of Balamand, in Tripoli, Lebanon. “Every year we try again to alert the government, but nothing gets done.”

October’s forest fires are part of a larger trend that has been unfolding in recent decades, warns Mitri, in which fires are getting worse, bigger and more frequent. According to Lebanon’s Red Cross, at least 18 people have been hospitalized and another 88 have needed emergency medical care during the fires, despite the evacuation of thousands of people. Lebanon is not alone in suffering from forest fires: Syria and Tunisia have also been affected.

In Lebanon, traditionally, the fire season starts in May and ends in October, but that season has expanded, Mitri says. “Some fires are starting in the end of February and others last until December. We’re not far off from a continuous fire season at this rate.”

Human Causes

Climate change is playing a role—the dry seasons are getting longer and hotter, says Mitri, which makes forests more prone to fire. But the root cause for starting fires is not nature. “Ninety-nine percent of fires in Lebanon are human-caused,” says Mitri.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, approximately 13 percent of Lebanon is forested, with an additional ten percent of land with a lower density of trees classified as woodland. It’s unclear how much of these areas have burned this year.

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Some of the fires are started by accidents such as campfires gone awry, but others are started on purpose. Often, deliberate fires are started by people who want to develop land for construction or private owners who no longer want the hassle of managing woodland. Arsonists also start some of the fires, says Mitri.

“Some fires are starting in the end of February and others last until December. We’re not far off from a continuous fire season at this rate.”

George Mitri   An associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Balamand

The situation is the same in other Arab countries suffering from forest fires, says Florent Mouillot, an ecologist who specializes in fire risk ecosystems at Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research. Previously, Mouillot worked in Tunisia where he studied forest fires there. Like Lebanon, most of Tunisia’s forest fires were caused by human activity in one way or another. “There’s also lightning, but it’s not really a dominant cause in the Mediterranean,” he says.

Because almost all of Lebanon’s forest fires have humans to blame, ecologists don’t advocate allowing the blazes to continue under a “controlled burn,” which is the case elsewhere in the world where wildfires are sometimes considered a natural part of an ecological cycle that humans shouldn’t try to extinguish, lest dry brush and wood accumulate and make the fires more dangerous in the future.

Problems With the Data

During his time in Tunisia, Mouillot discovered large inaccuracies in the figures that researchers and agencies had recorded on the scale of the problem. He used NASA’s catalog of satellite images dating back to 1985 to audit the government’s own census for how much of the country’s woodland burned each year due to forest fires.

He found that government officials had systematically underestimated it by 50 percent on average. The largest fires in particular were played down the most, he says; sometimes the actual burned area was ten times the official claim. He blames the inaccuracy on “high political control of official data so as not to scare the population.”

Lebanon also needs more data—how much forest burns each year is still largely unknown. “The census of the burned area is lacking and that’s what I’m working on here,” says Mouillot.

He says he’ll have enough data within a year to remedy this deficit, which he hopes will be used by those seeking to prevent fires. “Before you fight, you need to know what’s going on to make simulations to help the country to manage this problem.”

Strong fires spread in different parts of Lebanon and Syria, forcing some residents to flee homes (Photo: Baladi News Network).
Strong fires spread in different parts of Lebanon and Syria, forcing some residents to flee homes (Photo: Baladi News Network).

The Search for Solutions

Mitri, at the University of Balamand, has meanwhile produced a computer model to map the spatial distribution of fire risk in Lebanon.

He produced the map by carefully assigning a level of risk to each parcel of land throughout the country, based on land use and other socio-economic factors. For example, grasslands and forest are natural tinder for fires, but they’re more at risk if they’re close to human activity or if there is no fire action plan in place. Mitri says the vast majority of forests in Lebanon have no such planning.

“We’ve had over 420 fires in Lebanon this season alone and they’ve basically burned on the areas we highlighted as high risk,” he says. “So, we know our map is working. It’s an excellent tool for deciding on priority areas for prevention measures.”

For example, his map could help authorities to know where to deploy rangers who could assess fire risk in real time. It could also help them to know where they should direct fire-fighting equipment like water cannon and helicopters with water buckets.

Political Instability and Risk

Even less is known about the patterns of forest and bush fires in Syria, largely because of the conflict in recent years. “I don’t know what’s going on in Syria,” says Mitri. “But fire doesn’t follow administrative boundaries.”

Based on his time in Tunisia, however, Mouillot says the instability is likely to have made fires worse and more frequent. After Tunisia’s revolution in 2011, Mouillot observed an increase in forest fires in the North African country.

He thinks it could be because people took advantage of the political confusion to clear land for construction by burning trees. In particular, in the south of Tunisia, the pre-revolutionary government had confiscated land in the 1980s along the coast to plant trees for sand dune protection, says Mouillot. The former landowners remembered this and took retribution in the aftermath of the revolution by burning the woodland.

“People were scared of the government before, and then after 2011 people weren’t scared any more so they could burn fires if they wanted,” he says.

By Mouillot’s calculations, the area of land burned in Tunisia increased as much as ten times in the midst of the political upheaval, which he thinks could be a harbinger of what may have already occurred in Syria.

“We’re just starting to investigate Syria now,” he says. “But we’re expecting a similar tenfold increase of burned areas.”

Both Mouillot and Mitri hope that government agencies and private landowners will take note of their findings to create evidence-based fire plans. If more forested areas had such plans, it would mean fires would be less likely to spread, less likely to occur in the first place, and forests would be more likely to recover when fires do happen.

“At the moment, our fires are very frequent,” says Mitri. “I can see some areas burning every five years, and that’s not enough time for them to properly recover.”




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