Friday, November 6, 1998

LebEnv # 60


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

Last month, hundreds of fires burned all over Lebanon, which I commented on in the last LebEnv. The issue of fire in Lebanon needs to be examined more closely in light of the recent events as well as big fires that have taken place in the past.

Fires have always been an integral part of many ecosystems. Such ecosystems evolved with fire to the point that they depend on it. Some pine trees (Ponderosa and Lodgepole) in the Western U.S. depend on fire started by lightning for their seeds to germinate. Fires create a mosaic of vegetation, where groves of trees might be interspersed with meadows where sun-loving plant species grow. Many animals thrive in such a mosaic. Most grasslands will deteriorate without the presence of periodic fires. The problem arises when fire is suppressed for many decades because of the "all fires are bad" mentality. This results in debris (fuel) accumulating faster than it can decompose. When a fire does inevitably take place, it feeds on the excess fuel and burns hot, causing a lot of damage to large trees and the soil. Nowadays, controlled burns are carried out in the U.S. according to a plan so as to burn accumulated debris. The right weather conditions (cool temperatures, some humidity, little wind...) are chosen so that the fire will not burn out of control.

In the areas of Los Angeles and San Diego, huge fires take place towards the end of Summer and beginning of Fall, just as they seem to do in Lebanon. This is the time of the year when vegetation is at its driest after several rainless months, and the Santa Ana winds (their version of the "Khamsin" or "Sharquieh") blow from the hot interior. The chaparral-type vegetation burns. The aftermath looks horrible, but the fire-adapted plants grow back from their roots, and wildflowers abound. (It's the wooden houses that are not "adapted" to the environment that give such a bad name to fires.)

Los Angeles and San Diego lie within one of a few areas around the world that are considered to have "Mediterranean" climate and ecosystems. Lebanon is in one of those. It is no surprise that we have so many fires. It is likely that they have been taking place for tens of thousands of years, started by lightning or primitive humans.

Lebanon needs to take a new approach to fire. Simply fighting fires will only delay the inevitable. What is needed is a program to start low-intensity fires under the right conditions so as to clear the ground without damaging the tops of trees or their trunks. This will burn off accumulated leaves and needles, and remove overgrown shrubs, which will regrow, freshly and vigorously, from their roots. The fires will not cover the entire ground; this will create a desirable mosaic of undergrowth. Lebanon has large areas of open meadows that will also benefit. Just below Aitat (Aley region) was a large meadow that burned many years ago. It looked horrible for a while. Then a miracle happened. In Spring, it was covered with millions of daisies to the point where it looked like snow. (This meadow has since been destroyed by roads and buildings as a result of yet another subdivision.) Of course, wildfires will still need to be fought as they are now.

The ideal thing would have been to let Nature take its course. However, Lebanon's ecology has been tinkered with for so long that this is no longer possible. As we saw, wild fires can be very destructive. That's why we need controlled fires to "catch up." Also, because unnaturally hot fires can wipe out everything, and because Lebanon has lost so much of its forest cover to fire and reckless development, Nature needs a helping hand in the form of intensive reforestation. Just as hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent rebuilding the country's highways and other infrastructure, surely a few million can be spent to train firefighters to battle out-of-control blazes, set controlled fires, and to buy a few air tankers and hire their pilots.

I do not have statistics about the latest fires, but my hope is that some of the areas were meadows and other open areas that will quickly recover, and that some of the forest fires spared most trees and burned undergrowth only.

Fareed Abou-Haidar

Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at



Created 981117/bl