Algeria: Massive fire kills at least 34 people

Tornado of fire destroys homes and shops: Firefighters were still working hard on Tuesday to extinguish violent fires in the north and east of Algeria that have killed at least 34 people since Sunday.

“As of 8:30 a.m. (07:30 GMT) this morning, only 15 of the 97 declared fires remain,” civil protection information official Karim Belhafsy told national television on Tuesday, two of which are in Bejaiya, the wilayah (province) most affected by these fires.

According to him, the Ministry of the Interior should soon publish a press release announcing the “complete cessation of all fires”.

The fire affected more than 15 provinces, especially Bouaira, Jijel and Bejaia, areas already affected by severe fires in the previous two years, which killed about 130 people.

When soldiers were evacuated from Beni Qassila in the Bejaiya region along with residents of neighboring villages, they found themselves engulfed in flames, the Defense Ministry said, announcing the death of 10 soldiers.

Fires in northern Algeria (AFP – Valentin Rakowski, Sabrina Blanchard)

According to the governor of Bejaia, in addition to the death toll, the undetermined number of injured, some of whom were seriously burned, should also be condemned.

More than 1,500 people had to be evacuated from some villages as the tornado of fire came near their homes. Coastal seaside resorts popular with summer tourists were also destroyed by the flames.

The affected villages, many of which are located in the mountainous region of Kabyli, are heavily forested and have suffered an intense heat wave for several weeks, with maximum temperatures reaching 48 degrees on Monday.

The heat wave dried up the vegetation, making it even more vulnerable to the slightest fire outbreak. According to various testimonies from local media, the fire was also fueled by high winds.

In neighboring Tunisia, in the north-west, a massive fire broke out on Monday in the border region of Tabarka, an area already ravaged by flames last week.

An AFP team was able to see significant damage and saw helicopters and Canadair water bombers intervening. More than 300 residents of Melaula village were moved to safer areas by sea and others left the area by land.

In August 2022, a massive fire killed 37 people in the El Taraf region in the northeast. The summer of 2021 was the deadliest in decades: fires in the north, especially in Kabylia, killed more than 90 people.

– “Green Numbers” –

Local media footage showed burning fields and bushland, burnt cars and burnt storefronts. Eyewitnesses described that the consuming tongues of fire suddenly began to erupt “like a blowtorch”.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune expressed his condolences to the families on Monday.

According to officials, over 8,000 civil defense agents and 525 trucks have been deployed.

Recently chartered firefighting planes and helicopters as well as a high-powered bomber intervened to drop water on the fire.

The Ministry of the Interior called on citizens to “avoid the affected areas and use the available toll-free numbers to report any fires”.

According to a press release, the public prosecutor of Bejaia ordered the opening of a preliminary investigation to determine the cause of the fire and identify the possible perpetrators.

– Deadly heat –

Every summer, the north and east of Algeria are hit by wildfires, a phenomenon that increases from year to year under the influence of climate change, causing drought and heat waves.

To avoid a repeat of two consecutive deadly summers, authorities began mobilizing in the spring, notably by developing helicopter landing areas in 10 wilayas (provinces) and mobilizing locally-made drones for fire prevention.

The Ministry of the Interior announced in May the purchase of a large water bomber and the rental of six others in South America.

Algeria also placed an order for four water bombers with Russia, but their delivery was delayed due to “the consequences of the crisis in Ukraine” following Russia’s invasion of that country.

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