Wildfires tearing through forested areas of northern Algeria have killed at least 65 people, state television reported on August 11, as some of the most destructive blazes in the country’s history continued to rage.
The government has deployed the army to help fight the fires, which have burnt most fiercely in the mountainous Kabylie region, and 28 of the dead are soldiers, with another 12 critically injured with burns.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared three days of national mourning for the dead and froze state activities not related to the fires, Reuters reports.
Forest fires have set large parts of Algeria, Turkey and Greece aflame over the past week and a European Union atmosphere monitor said the Mediterranean had become a wildfire hotspot aided by increasingly hot weather.
Dozens of separate fires have raged through forest areas across northern Algeria since Monday and on Tuesday Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud accused arsonists of igniting the flames, without providing any evidence.
The worst hit area has been Tizi Ouzou, the largest district of the Kabylie region, where houses have burned and residents fled to shelter in hotels, hostels and university accommodation in nearby towns.
The government has said it will compensate those affected.
Dozens of civilians and soldiers reported dead
Wildfires are fanned by blistering temperatures and tinder-dry conditions, authorities said on August 10, adding that the fires had criminal origins, Gulf-Times reported.
Photographs posted on social media show huge walls of flame and billowing clouds of smoke towering over charred trees in the forested hills of the Kabylie region, east of the capital Algiers.
Algeria joins a string of countries to be hit by major blazes in recent weeks, including Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the western United States.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tweeted his condolences for 25 soldiers who were killed as they rescued people in the areas of Bejaiea and Tizi Ouzou, the epicentre of the blazes.
“It is with great sadness that I have learned of the martyrdom of 25 soldiers after they were successful in rescuing around 100 citizens from the flames in the mountains of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou,” the president said.
The defence ministry said the actions of the soldiers had “saved 110 people — men, women and children — from the flames”.
State radio said three “arsonists” had been arrested in the northern district of Medea and another in Annaba, in relation to other fires.
More than 70 fires have broken out in 14 states across the north of the country, including 10 particularly around Tizi Ouzou, one of the most populous cities in Kabylie.
An AFP photographer in Tizi Ouzou saw medics carrying away bodies of people killed in the fire.
Meteorologists said the temperature would hit 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) yesterday in a North African country that is also struggling with severe water shortages.
The APS news agency said 13 civilians had died, 12 in the Tizi Ouzou region, raising an earlier interior ministry toll.
Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud, on a visit to the northern city, told television that “50 fires starting at the same time is impossible. These fires are of criminal origin.”
The civil protection directorate said 12 northern urban centres were hit by fires.
Last month, President Tebboune ordered a bill to stiffen punishments for starting a forest fire, with sentences of up to 30 years in prison – and possible life imprisonment, if the fire results in death.
In July, three people were arrested on suspicion of starting fires that devastated 15 square kilometres of forest in the Aures mountains.
Qatar’s amir sends condolences to Algeria as deadly wildfires rip through country
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani sent his condolences to the President of Algeria for the victims of deadly wildfires that have sparked in several areas of the North African country, Doha News reports.
A series of separate fires have ignited through forest areas across northern Algeria since Monday night, killing at least 42 people, including 25 soldiers sent to help put out the blaze.
Clouds of smoke have covered much of the mountainous Kabylie region east of Algiers, obstructing the visibility of fire crews. Meanwhile, smaller fires have ravaged forests in at least 16 provinces in Algeria since August 9.
Algerian Minister of Interior Kamel Beldjoud has accused arsonists of starting the fires, but failed to provide more details on the claims.
“Only criminal hands can be behind the simultaneous outbreak of about 50 fires across several localities,” he said.
In desperate efforts to put out the fires, residents of the Tizi Ouzou region in Kabylie used tree branches or water from plastic containers to try to extinguish burning patches of land.
Some soldiers were killed while trying to extinguish the flames, others perished after they were cut off by the spreading fire, according to residents of Kabylie. Algeria’s defence ministry said more soldiers had suffered severe burn related injuries.
Several houses were burnt as Algerian families escaped to hotels, youth hostels and university residences.
Algerian Prime Minister Ayman Benabderrahmane said the government was in “advanced talks with (foreign) partners to hire planes and help speed up the process of extinguishing fires.”
Last week, a European Union atmosphere monitor said the Mediterranean had become a hotspot for wildfires, as massive blazes, aided by a heatwave, engulfed regions in Turkey and Greece,
For the past week, uncontrolled wildfires have swept through several parts of Greece in what is considered the country’s “worst heatwave in more than 30 years,” with temperatures exceeding 40C (104F).
Hundreds of homes have been destroyed as the inferno tore through thousands of acres of forestland, leaving hundreds of animals dead in its path. Residents have described “losing entire villages to flames”.
Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate the island via ferries and fishermen’s boats, with “apocalyptic” scenes emerging on social media.
An equipped search and rescue from the Qatar’s International Search and Rescue Group of the Internal Security Lekhwiya Forcehas was dispatched to Greece to assist in battling a series of “catastrophic” wildfires in the country
Similarly in Turkey, 200 wildfires burnt 1,600 square kilometres of the country’s forest in what has been labelled as the country’s worst infernos in modern history.
Many of the blazes raged close to popular tourist destinations, from Manavgat to Marmaris and Bodrum, pushing thousands of locals and visitors to quickly flee in cars, boats and yachts to save their lives.
Qatar also dispatched a Lekhwiya team to Turkey to assist with rescue operations.
The severe heatwave has also seen wildfires erupting across several countries in southern Europe, including Albania, Spain, and Italy.
In 2020, nearly 440 square kilometres of forest were destroyed by fire, and several people were arrested on suspicion of arson.
On August 9, the UN released a major report showing how the threat from global warming is even more acute than previously thought.
It highlighted how scientists are quantifying the extent to which human-induced warming increases the intensity and/or likelihood of a specific extreme weather event, such as a heatwave or a wildfire.
Prime minister says request made for help internationally as forest blazes erupt in Kabyle region and elsewhere
Benabderrahmane also told state television that the government had asked for help from the international community and was in talks with partners to hire planes to extinguish fires.
Dozens of fires started up on Monday in the Kabyle region and elsewhere, and Algerian authorities sent in the army to help citizens with the blazes and evacuations.
Multiple fires were burning through forests, destroying olive trees and killing cattle and chickens.
The Kabyle region, 60 miles (100km) east of Algiers, the capital, has many difficult-to-access villages and limited water. Some villagers were fleeing, while others tried to hold back the flames themselves, using buckets, branches and rudimentary tools. The region has no water-dumping planes.
Kamel Beldjoud, the interior minister, went to Kabyle to assess the situation yesterday and accused arsonists of igniting the flames, without providing more details on the allegations.
“Only criminal hands can be behind the simultaneous outbreak of about 50 fires across several localities,” he said.
Other northern areas of Algeria also had active wildfires. The civil protection authority said on Algerian radio that seven people had died, including six in Kabyle plus a man in his 80s who had been trying to save his animals in the Setif region to the east. The authority recorded 41 blazes in 18 wilayas, or regions, as of Monday night, with 21 of those burning around Tizi Ouzou, the Kabyle capital.
The country’s president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, tweeted his condolences for 25 soldiers killed as they worked to rescue people in the areas of Bejaiea and Tizi Ouzou, the epicentre of the blazes.
“It is with great sadness that I have learned of the martyrdom of 25 soldiers after they were successful in rescuing around 100 citizens from the flames in the mountains of Bejaiea and Tizi Ouzou,” the president said.
A 92-year-old woman living in the Kabyle mountain village of Ait Saada said the scene Monday night looked like “the end of the world”. Fatima Aoudia told the Associated Press: “We were afraid. The entire hill was transformed into a giant blaze.”
Aoudia compared the scene to bombings by French troops during Algeria’s brutal independence war, which ended in 1962. “These burned down forests. It’s a part of me that is gone. It’s a drama for humanity, for nature. It’s a disaster.”
Climate scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events, such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. A worsening drought and heat both linked to climate change are driving wildfires in the US and in Siberia. Extreme heat is also fuelling the massive fires in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.
A civil protection ambulance driver, who asked not to be named, told the AP that the death toll in Kabyle was higher than the six victims cited by the interior minister.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tweeted that the soldiers were “martyrs” who saved 100 people from the fires in two areas of Kabyle, the region that is home to the North African nation’s Berber population.
Eleven other soldiers were burned fighting the fires, four of them seriously, the Defense Ministry said, The Aassociated Press (AP) reported.
The mountainous Kabyle region is dotted with difficult-to-access villages and with temperatures rising has had limited water. Some villagers were fleeing, while others tried to hold back the flames themselves, using buckets, branches, and rudimentary tools. The region has no water-dumping planes.
The deaths and injuries Tuesday occurred mainly around Kabyle’s capital of Tizi-Ouzou, which is flanked by mountains, and also in Bejaia, which borders the Mediterranean Sea, the president said.
The prime minister told state television that initial reports from security services showed the fires in Kabyle were “highly synchronized,” adding that “leads one to believe these were criminal acts.” Earlier, Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud traveled to Kabyle to assess the situation and also blamed the fires there on arson.
“Thirty fires at the same time in the same region can’t be by chance,” Beldjoud said on national television, although no arrests were announced.
There were no immediate details to explain the high death toll among the military. A photo pictured on the site of the Liberte daily showed a soldier with a shovel dousing sputtering flames with dirt, his automatic weapon slung over his shoulder.
Dozens of blazes sprang up Monday in Kabyle and elsewhere, and Algerian authorities sent in the army to help citizens battle blazes and evacuate. Multiple fires were burning through forests and devouring olive trees, cattle, and chickens that provide the livelihoods of families in the Kabyle region.
The Civil Protection authority counted 41 blazes in 18 wilayas, or regions, as of Monday night, with 21 of them burning around Tizi Ouzou.
A 92-year-old woman living in the Kabyle mountain village of Ait Saada said the scene Monday night looked like “the end of the world.”
“We were afraid,” Fatima Aoudia told The Associated Press. “The entire hill was transformed into a giant blaze.”
Aoudia compared the scene to bombings by French troops during Algeria’s brutal independence war, which ended in 1962.
“These burned down forests. It’s a part of me that is gone,” Aoudia said. “It’s a drama for humanity, for nature. It’s a disaster.”
An opposition party with roots in the Kabyle region, the RCD, denounced authorities’ slow response to the rash of blazes as citizens organized local drives to collect bottled water and other supplies. Calls for help, including from Algerians living abroad, went out on social media, one in English trending on Twitter with the hashtag #PrayforAlgeria. Photos and videos posted showed plumes of dark smoke and orange skies rising above hillside villages or soldiers in army fatigues without protective clothing.
Climate scientists say there is little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas is driving extreme events, such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. A worsening drought and heat – both linked to climate change – are causing wildfires in the U.S. West and Russia’s northern region of Siberia. Extreme heat is also fueling the massive fires in Greece and Turkey.As we previously reported, The Mediterranean has become a ‘wildfire hotspot,’ EU scientists say.