Eioun al-Samak, Lebanon - Fires raged on Wednesday for the second time this month across hectares (acres) of forest in Lebanon, threatening the natural wealth of a country once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East.
Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa pointed an accusing finger at unidentified assailants charged of starting the fires. "The big question is: how did these fires start late at night and in areas that are not linked to the road network," Sabaa told Voice of Lebanon radio.
He disclosed that in the "Eioun al-Samak region of the Minyeh district residents observed smoke billowing from the nearby mountain, they innocently headed to the source of smoke to extinguish the blaze, but they were shot at."
"This supports suspicion that these fires are intentional," Sabaa added. Earlier this month, more than 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of woodland were destroyed in fires that swept through several regions of Lebanon, leaving one woman dead and dozens injured.
Experts have warned that seasonal forest fires in Lebanon are further threatening to destroy the country's natural wealth -- among the richest in the Middle East. "The consequences of forest fires are disastrous on the natural environment and ecological systems, not to mention the population, by worsening poverty and lowering the quality of life," said a report by the Association for Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC).
Lebanon is known as a tourist destination for its scenic green mountains that offer cool summer vacations, mainly for wealthy Gulf Arabs escaping the heat in their desert countries.
The country's natural wealth, including its large water resources, have traditionally been a main source of income for residents of tourist regions and local farmers. Zeina Tamim, an official at the agriculture ministry, said that forest fires were slowly destroying green zones which account for 23 percent of the country's territory, including 13.5 percent of forests.
"The fire claimed approximately 0.25 percent of Lebanese territory (earlier this month). It is estimated that at least 2,500 hectares of forest were burned, which equal five times the total reforested area during the past 17 years," said the AFDC report.
"As a result of these fires, the forest cover has been burnt down to 11 percent. Replanting the 2,500 hectares would cost 10 million dollars," said the report based on a study funded by the European Union.
The ADFC report said forest fires in Lebanon are mainly caused by climatic conditions: prolongued hot summers, lack of water and violent winds. "Also, the general public through their lifestyle or livelihood activities is an important initiator of forest fires," mainly due to the clearing of agricultural fields using fire, it said.
Many parts of the torched forests are lost without any possibility of natural regeneration, as pine forests that are damaged by fire twice within a period of 10 years can not produce any more cones.
"Lebanon's green areas are a wealth that is threatened with extinction if there is no quick salvation plan that includes the reforestation of the burnt-out areas," an environment ministry official warned.
"The erosion of green areas has dangerous consequences: the destruction of floristic species diversity, soil erosion, the decrease in underground waters and desertification," the official who did not wish to be identified said.
The AFDC report said "Lebanon's forests have undergone continuous degradation, which has intensified in recent years."
"Between 1990 and 1995, more than 30 percent of Lebanese forests were deforested or burned, leading to fragmentation and loss of the fundamental nature of these forest ecosystems," it said.
Wild fires raged across tinder-dry forests of north and south Lebanon Wednesday as choppers from the nearby Island republic of Cyprus tried to help combat tongues of flame threatening population centers.
Police blocked traffic along the Zghorta-Ehden highway, which penetrates the region's forests and olive groves to avoid civilian casualties. In south Lebanon tongues of flame shot up in the sky from pine and oak forests of south Lebanon's Bisri-Sfarai region, according to police.
Civil Defense teams operating fire engines sprayed olive and orange groves surrounding the region with water to prevent the spread of fires as other teams of volunteers tried to help in combating the spreading inferno.
An official at the Civil Defense directorate reached by telephone said: "We are carrying out a double mission, on the one hand we combat the forest fires and, on the other, we try to prevent the blaze from reaching population centers."
He attributed the fires to the long summer and dry land. "Winter is late, we need rain, God is the best firefighter," said the official who asked not to be identified by name. In the Muslim villages of north Lebanon the elderly clergymen called for special "rain prayers" "Only Allah's Mercy can help put off the fires. God Directs rain," said Farouq Ashi of the Akkar Atiqa village.
Wild Fires Swept across more than 6.000 acres of forest land earlier this month killing one person and injuring scores. Sources: Ya Libnan, Naharnet