Fires blaze through prized Latakia forestland, trees ‘reduced to charcoal’

When Abu Raed smelled smoke in the air on Wednesday morning, he immediately thought back to last November, when forest fires blazed through his village in the low-lying mountains of Latakia province.

“It was the first time that I had witnessed fires of this size,” the 55-year-old, who owns a small plot of farmland in the forest near the village of Joubah, tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.  

Forest fires are relatively rare in Latakia, especially during the coastal province’s rainy, temperate winters. But on Wednesday, a forest fire blazed through “thousands of acres” of oak trees and evergreens in the Qardaha region of Latakia, where Abu Raed lives. It was the second such blaze in just four months, he said.

The unusual frequency of the fires in the coastal province has left residents suspicious and searching for a cause.

“Neither the government nor anyone else has told us any reason for the forest fires,” says Abu Raed. The lack of information “has made us suspect that they may have been intentional.”

Latakia province’s state-run fire brigades put out Wednesday’s fire and released a statement that night listing the villages affected. The statement did not identify the cause of the blaze.

Residents suspect the fires are the work of unlicensed charcoal traders, “who only care about money, even if it harms the environment,” says Abu Raed.

 Wednesday’s forest fires. Photo courtesy of Latakia Fire Brigade.

Last April, when similar fires broke out in western Hama province’s Masyaf and its surrounding forests, just 50 kilometers southeast of Abu Raed’s village, residents blamed unlicensed charcoal traders of intentionally igniting the blazes.

“This morning I took a walk through mountains that were once covered in green, and I mourned the view I saw—barren slopes, covered in black.”

“We have trees that have been here for hundreds of years that are now reduced to charcoal.”

Q: Have any local authorities told you the reason for the forest fires? Do they occur every year or is this something unusual?

Neither the government nor anyone else has told us any reason for the forest fires. But the cause of any fire must be known, whether an electrical short or lightning or a mistake by a resident or farmer.

The constant lack of an explanation for the fires has made us suspect that they may have been intentional.

Q: Can you tell me more about when the fire began? How did you and your neighbors react?  

I first noticed them at about nine o’ clock on Wednesday morning. They started before then, but I wasn’t aware of that.

I smelled something burning very strongly, and I heard loud noises. Everyone in my town went outside to see what was going on.

The fires kept going until the following day. The wind helped them spread quickly until [firefighters] got it under control. Unfortunately, it covered thousands of acres of land that were considered part of the country’s natural wealth.

There wasn’t any loss of life, though the fire did come close to a home before its residents evacuated.

 The aftermath of Wednesday’s forest fires. Photo courtesy of Latakia Fire Brigade.

Q: Last year, there was a similar forest fire that lasted for an entire week. Can you describe what that fire was like? Was it similar to yesterday’s forest fire?

Last year’s fires were very intense—it was the first time that I had witnessed fires of this size. They came close to residential areas and farmland, causing extreme material damage.

Memories of last year’s losses are making us anxious right now. For example, we started getting scared whenever there was a strange smell and now nobody can sleep through the night. There is a lot of tension.

All throughout this ordeal, we feel as if we are being left in the dark because nobody is giving out any information about the scope of the damage from Wednesday’s fires, or even how far the fires actually spread and if they destroyed any farmland or other property.

This morning I took a walk through mountains that were once covered in green, and I mourned the view I saw—barren slopes, covered in black. My heart was in pain. We have trees that have been here for hundreds of years that are now reduced to charcoal.

Q: Are residents blaming anyone for the forest fires? Who do they think could be benefitting from this?

[Residents are saying that] the people benefitting from these fires are businesspeople, who only care about money, even if it harms nature and the environment.

People here think the fires were intentional because they are from here and have lived in these towns for decades. I am one of them. All these years, we have never seen forest fires of this size, especially around the towns outside al-Qardaha.

Unfortunately, there are people taking advantage of the situation this country is in, as well as a dire local need for firewood and charcoal and the rise in prices—the people who did this are war profiteers. 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.