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.”
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.