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Lebanon pine forest blaze begins wildfire season

A firefighting helicopter drops water on the Batramaz forest fire in Lebanon's northern district on June 8
— Beirut (AFP)

Emergency teams brought under control a massive blaze in Lebanon's largest pine forest on Wednesday that authorities said could be deliberate, as the country braced for another summer of fires.

The fire in the northern Dinniyeh region broke out on Tuesday night, prompting the army and volunteer firefighters to scramble to save one of the Middle East's lushest pine forests.

The army on Wednesday said it dispatched helicopters, dropping water by giant buckets onto the blaze.

"Unfortunately, the forest fire season starts," Environment Minister Nasser Yassin said.

After several hours of work in difficult conditions, the fire was "brought under control", Yassin told AFP. "The affected region is under surveillance to avoid a new fire."

Yassin, who visited the area on Wednesday, said it was "possible that the fire was sparked deliberately".

Hamad Hamdane, a member of the civil defence, said teams were ensuring the smouldering embers had been extinguished.

"We are going to walk into the forest... to make sure the fire is completely under control," Hamdane said.

Firefighters ready water to be collected by helicopters tackling a forest blaze

Lebanon is grappling with its worst-ever financial crisis and lacks the tools and capabilities to combat catastrophic wildfires that have increased in recent years, partly because of rising temperatures due to climate change.

The corruption-ridden Mediterranean state has repeatedly needed foreign assistance for disaster response.

The government's shortcomings have angered environmental activists, who warn of the damage being done to the country's ever-shrinking natural treasures.

A local official said there had been an increase in illegal logging operations in the forest in recent years.

"May God forgive those who did not appoint forest guards, who left forest areas without fire fighting equipment, and who neglected the development and support of civil defence," environmental activist Paul Abi Rached wrote on social media.

Last July, it took Lebanon days to extinguish wildfires that ravaged pine forests in the north, left a 15-year-old volunteer firefighter dead and forced many people from their homes.

In 2019, the government's failure to contain devastating wildfires was one of the triggers of an unprecedented, nationwide protest movement against perceived official incompetence and corruption.

Scientists have warned that extreme weather and fierce fires will become increasingly common due to man-made global warming.