Summer wildfires have always been a reality of life in Algeria. Just last year, more than 100,000 acres of land across the country were destroyed by fires. But this summer’s fire was the most widespread and destructive fire the country has experienced since its independence from France in 1962.
Since August 9th, there have been more than 70 fires in the Kabylia area in the north of the country, including Tizi Ouzou, Setif, Khenchela, Guelma, Bejaïa, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Boumerdès, Tiaret, Jijel, Medea, Tébessa, Blida And Skikda.
Tizi Ouzou Province, Kabylia’s largest mountain, was the hardest hit. People lost their homes and livestock. Families who found they had little property on the street had to move into hotels, guest houses and schools, which were reused to provide emergency accommodation.
At the beginning of the crisis, it became clear that firefighters and volunteers alone could not extinguish the fire, so the Algerian government deployed troops to the area.
So far, at least 69 people have been killed in the fire, including 28 soldiers. The death toll is expected to increase as more civilians and military victims are still in the hospital in critical conditions.
The unprecedented number of deaths-significantly higher than other countries in the region that have experienced similar fires-led President Abdul Majid Tebun to order three days of national mourning for the victims. The President also announced that his government will compensate those affected.
But when Algeria tried to heal its wounds and support the survivors trying to rebuild their lives, some important questions continued to occupy the minds of the people: What caused the fire? Why is it difficult for the country to effectively respond to the crisis? Perhaps most importantly, what can we do to prevent this tragedy from happening again?
Arson or climate change?
Both President Tebboune and his Minister of the Interior Kamel Beldjoud insisted that the destruction was caused by “arsonists.” Although the authorities have not provided any evidence for their claims, they did arrest several people in connection with the fire. The area affected by the fire is a stronghold of the separatist MAK (Autonomous Movement of Kabylia) organization. Many people believe that the claim that MAK initiated or at least exacerbated the fire that weakened the central government is reasonable.
Believe that fire is not natural, but man-made, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia, and causing some devastating consequences. In the town of Larbaa Nath Irathen in Tizi Ozuou, a group of angry mobs forcibly took a man suspected of arson from a police car, lynched his body in the main square of the town, and set fire to his body. It was later revealed that the victim was 35-year-old artist and activist Djamel Bensmail, who came to the area to provide humanitarian assistance to local residents. The investigation of the incident by the relevant security departments has so far led to the arrest of 61 suspects suspected of killing, self-immolating and dismembering bodies, destroying property, and attacking police stations to varying degrees.
The country generally believes that the arsonists are behind the fire, which has also led to the marginalization of a factor that undoubtedly played a leading role in causing the fire: climate change. In fact, climate change is exacerbating droughts, creating perfect conditions for wildfires to spread, and causing unprecedented environmental, material and human destruction in the region. Earlier this month, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Agency stated that the Mediterranean has become a “wildfire hotspot” due to climate change and warned that more such fires may occur in the future. The recent devastating wildfires in Greece and Turkey further confirm that the increased impact of Algerian wildfires is not only the result of domestic problems, but also part of the global environmental crisis.
What went wrong in Algeria’s response to the fire?
As Turkey and Greece have significantly lower death tolls when facing the same widespread and intense wildfires than Algeria, Algerians have begun to question why their countries cannot effectively respond to the crisis.
So far, the relative indifference of the international community towards the situation in Algeria and the country’s lack of the latest fire fighting technology and equipment have become the main reasons.
In fact, this tragedy clearly shows that Algeria has not made any serious investments in firefighting and forestry services in recent years. The country’s firefighters are not sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with a fire of this scale. Most importantly, Algeria does not have the necessary aerial fire fighting capabilities to effectively deal with such fires. If this country had firefighting aircraft, they would undoubtedly extinguish the fire faster, with fewer or no casualties. The firefighters did their best with limited equipment and no air support. They have achieved some success in limiting losses, but generally proved incapable of extinguishing the fire.
The Algerian government admitted that its firefighters were unable to deal with a crisis of this scale alone, so it sent troops. But the soldiers did not have the necessary equipment or training to quickly control the fire and ensure their own safety in the process. As a result, at least according to official figures, 28 soldiers were killed in the fire.
Inconvenient transportation in the disaster area is also an obstacle. The mountainous terrain that prevented fire trucks from approaching the explosion site made the operation extremely difficult. Since previous Algerian regimes have failed to invest in forestry services, there are no plans to enter these areas during times of crisis.
Finally, the world has turned a blind eye to the situation in Algeria for too long, and international aid has not come fast enough to save the country from destruction.
At the beginning of the crisis, King Mohammed VI of Morocco offered to help the Algerian authorities control the fire. He said that the two firefighting aircraft were on standby, waiting for Algiers’ approval to fly to the disaster-stricken area in the Kabil region. Relations between Morocco and Algeria have been tense for decades because the two neighboring countries have conflicting positions not only in the Western Sahara conflict, but also in the separatist movement in Kabylia. Recently, the Moroccan ambassador to the United Nations called Kabylia an “Algerian colony” and announced its support for the region’s right to self-determination. In response, Algiers recalled its ambassador to Rabat and opened the door for further measures. Therefore, Algeria has never approved Morocco to provide assistance.
Unwilling to accept any help from Morocco, the Algerian authorities turned to the wider international community, especially the European Union, for help. The EU agreed to send two firefighting aircraft to Algeria, but only if they have completed their mission to extinguish fires in Greece and Turkey. It soon became clear that Greece and Turkey were EU priorities, and helping Algeria was only an afterthought of the EU.
On August 12, the European Union finally sent two Air Canada firefighting aircraft to Algeria. These aircraft successfully controlled the fire in Tizi Ouzou and nearby Bejaia province, and then moved to other parts of the northeastern part of the country to deal with the fire.
The role of European Air Canada’s aircraft in fighting the fire further confirmed that if Algeria had firefighting aircraft first, the number of casualties would be lower.
what should I do?
Although wildfires occur every year in Algeria, the country has never experienced such severe damage in recent history. This year’s disasters demonstrated the country’s vulnerability to such disasters. The Algerian authorities now need to take some measures to prevent this tragedy from recurring in the future.
The country needs to establish a more complete fire response system. Most importantly, it needs to invest in the purchase of firefighting aircraft. For a country five times the size of France, it is naturally susceptible to wildfires, and it is necessary to have a well-maintained firefighting aircraft fleet. Fortunately, after this month’s tragedy, the Algerian Ministry of Defense announced its intention to purchase eight Russian Beriev Be-200 Altair firefighting aircraft to deal with future fires.
Improving communication between fire and forestry departments across the country is another must. This will help develop a national wildfire risk map and help the authorities prepare for future crises and develop a response plan.
The state should also invest in making Algeria’s mountainous rural areas more accessible. By well maintaining existing infrastructure and building new roads and facilities, the authorities can ensure that emergency services can quickly respond to any crisis anywhere in the country.
Finally, perhaps needless to say, Algeria needs to invest in its fire department in training and equipment. The state has the responsibility to create conditions for firefighters so that they can complete their work safely and effectively.
According to the European Forest Fire Information System, the fire risk in Algeria will remain high for the foreseeable future. When communities try to rebuild after a disaster, the Algerian nation’s greatest responsibility is to ensure that every effort is made to prevent the tragic events of this month from happening again.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.