Lebanon News

The brave men who helped beat back the flames in Damour

The Arc en Ciel association in Damour, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

DAMOUR, Lebanon: In the town of Damour, south of Beirut, huge areas of forest have been destroyed by the worst wildfires the country has experienced in decades.

Despite the arrival of rain in Lebanon Tuesday night, fires continued to reignite the following day, amid the wreckage caused by the initial blaze. Civil Defense members, who were still on alert in the area, rushed to contain the flames wherever they broke out.

The three floors of a help center operated by arcenciel, an organization that works with people with special needs, Wednesday stood gutted by the flames, all of its equipment burned, everything gone.

Elie Haddad, who works there, knew that he had to do something when the fire broke out in the early hours of Monday morning.

“My friend told me the news and I drove my kids to the nearby town of Jadra, because the fire seemed capable of reaching my home,” he explains. “Then I came back to help with the fire.”

The flames took hold at 3 a.m., but Civil Defense volunteers were unable to reach the area until later in the morning, leaving locals like Haddad to battle the fire on their own.

“It spread in a shocking way,” Haddad says. “If it was a normal one, I feel that we would have contained it and avoided the damage. We tried to use our basic firefighting equipment, but it was not enough. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Bassem Fakhreddine has been a Civil Defense volunteer for almost two decades. His facial expression says it all. Although he has fought many fires, this one stands out as the fiercest. But that did not put him off his task. In fact, he was so dedicated to beating back the flames that he continued to do so through the hours of darkness Monday night, even when his own daughter was taken to hospital with an asthma attack.

“When we managed to suppress the fire in a certain area it erupted in another,” Fakhreddine says. “We called for backup. We did everything we could, but we lacked the resources for such a huge blaze. The fire was everywhere, so we had to choose what we wanted to take care of. We chose the places that were closest to people. People are the most important thing.”

Referring to planes sent over by Cyprus to join the firefighting efforts Monday, Fakhreddine says, “They helped, but they could not work at night, because of the electrical towers nearby. We had to do everything on our own.”

There are more than 2,500 Civil Defense volunteers in Lebanon. Most give their time as paramedics, rescue workers and firefighters. Many have called for full-time employment over the years.

“I have been a volunteer for 19 years, risking my life, but I have not been employed by the government,” Fakhreddine says. “There are many others like me.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 17, 2019, on page 2.

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