The buzz of leaf blowers fills the air as a group of volunteers fights to contain and extinguish a fire burning in the Zagros Mountains. Others use branches to beat back the flames. No one is wearing protective clothing, and they leap back when the wind picks up, sending the flames racing through tinder-dry grasses towards them.
Wildfires have raged through the forests of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and Kurdish areas of Iran this summer, sparked by conflict and scorching hot temperatures. And in these mountains, there’s an added hazard – explosives and landmines, Rudaw states.
According to the province’s forestry police, hundreds of wildfires have broken out in Sulaimani this year, especially in the border areas with Iran. Putting out the fires needs more human resources than the police have, so they often rely on local villagers to help.
“While fighting wildfires, villagers usually lead and help us put them out. Thus, both our teams and the volunteers get harmed by the smoke, the flames, and the explosive remnants of war. In some cases, they get injured by falling off mountains and passing out due to the smoke.
Because of the fires, some of our teams have been diagnosed with chronic diseases like asthma,” Brig. Gen. Hemin Kamar Khan, the spokesperson for Sulaimani Forestry Police, told Rudaw English on Saturday.
The fires are largely started by humans, whether careless tourists or armed forces.
“Most of the fires are caused by tourists and careless people who leave behind cigarettes, charcoal, water bottles that radiate sunlight, and gas lighters, causing them to start a fire. In addition, Iranian border guards firing at the kolbars, especially in the Penjwen district, is also a source for the fires in the border areas,” Kamar Khan explained.
Kolbars are semi-legal porters who transport untaxed goods across the Kurdistan Region-Iran border, carrying heavy loads on their backs across the mountainous frontier. Most are driven into the trade by poverty. Iranian border guards frequently target them. One kolbar is at risk of losing his leg after he was shot this week.
While the humans start the fires, the flames are accelerated by the climate crisis – dry conditions and high temperatures. “So far this year, wildfires fanned by winds and soaring temperatures have burned nearly 10,000 dunams of forests in Sulaimani province,” said Kamar Khan.
In Duhok province, a large wildfire burned for four days before civil defense teams could put it out.
“After four days of work, the Zawita fire was controlled at 2 am on Tuesday. The forests of the area have been severely harmed. More than 10,000 dunams of land was burnt,” said Bewar Abdulaziz, spokesperson for Duhok civil defense.
Explosives planted in the area slowed their efforts. Four landmines blew up in the heat, forcing the firefighters to take to the air to battle the blaze.
“In Duhok province, over 1,200 wildfires have burned over 15,000 dunams of pine forests this year, including 100-year-old pine trees,” said Abdulaziz.
Many fires in Duhok are sparked by the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish forces in April launched a ground and air operation against the PKK in northern Duhok. Clashes have been intense at times, and Abdulaziz estimates that more than 50,000 dunams of land have been set on fire because of the conflict.
The same amount of land was scorched last year.
Across the border in Kurdish provinces of Iran, fires are also raging, and volunteer environmentalists are on the frontline, putting their lives at risk to extinguish the flames.
Last year three environmentalists, Mukhtar Khandani, Yasin Karimi, and Bilal Amini lost their lives fighting fires in the Marakhel region of Paveh, Kermanshah province.
Chya Sabz is a non-governmental organization established 22 years ago in Mariwan, Kurdistan province. The group has played a critical role in raising public awareness about illegal logging, wildfires, and threats to the famous oak forests in Iran’s Kurdish areas. They have fought more than 120 fires this summer and depend on volunteers to help, but they face the risk of injury.
“Twelve people have been injured fighting fires,” Chya Sabz spokesperson Irfan Hosseini told Rudaw English on Saturday.
The hazards are many. “Volunteers have little knowledge of the locations of these fires as compared to our team members. Typically, fires are found in mountainous areas. Occasionally, they get into car accidents or fall from heights. Sometimes, rocks fall from the mountains and hit them or their children,” Hosseini explained.
“The border areas are filled with bombs and land mines from the [Iran-Iraq] war. They explode and cause catastrophes. The volunteers are also stung by snakes and scorpions,” he added.
As an NGO, Chya Sabz does not have the protective equipment they need.
According to Hosseini, more than 2,300 hectares of forests have been burned in Mariwan and Sawlawa areas of Kurdistan province since March. There have been many fires in Paveh as well. In one alone, over 1,000 hectares of land were burned.