American University of Beirut

Can we prevent forest fires?

Dr. Salma Talhouk leads studies on the interaction of people and nature to improve the way communities manage wildfires.

​​​October 4, 2020
Salma Talhouk Why are we seeing more wildfires?
Lebanon is seeing a change in climate. The summer is lingering, and the spring is stretching. Rains used to come in the fall, but now they don’t set in until December. We used to see snow by December, but now snow doesn’t happen until after the New Year. When hot and dry summer weather stretches longer, it increases the risk of fire. 

What about the forests of Lebanon?
At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the land in Lebanon was cultivated, and the trees were cut. Even today you can see the remnants of terraces on many of the hillsides. But people abandoned cultivating the land, which was then taken over by natural vegetations and eventually turned into woodlands and forests. Forests started to grow around villages, and with urban expansion, towns grew out to meet the forests. But the forests have not been well managed, which also contributes to the risk of fire.

Whose responsibility is it to manage the forests?
As a society, we don’t feel responsible to manage the woodlands around us, but believe the public authorities are responsible. An added challenge is that the rules and regulations of forest management have not evolved ​with the conditions​. People haven’t been given the right to prune, cut, and clear the forests, which is part of good management. The initial intent of the regulations was to protect the forests, but now we have the other extreme, and it has become dangerous.

I maintain that the task of managing the lands and forests surrounding our communities belongs to the community as a whole.

Are there other factors affecting the incidence of fires?
In the 1950’s, the government of Lebanon conducted reforestation campaigns planting cedar trees at higher altitudes and mostly pines at lower altitudes. Pines are highly flammable and the areas where they were planted face hot dry summers. These areas are also close to towns and villages and with today’s waste management crisis, any time people throw waste into forested places or woodlands, it has the tendency to cause fires. Most fires actually occur because of negligence or arson. 

What can we do to manage forests better?
One way is through outreach. After last year’s fire our soil expert Dr. Issam Bashour, along with a team from the AUB Nature Conservation Center, took soil samples to measure the intensity of the fires. They found that the soil was still healthy, and the lands can be reforested. Our intent is to work with the communities so they can lead the rehabilitation programs in their surrounding lands.

At the research level, we have two master’s students in FAFS’s ecosystem management program working on this. Asma al Hajal is doing a comparative study of forest management techniques to understand which practices reduce forest fires. Leila Zeeini is conducting her research in an area recently damaged by forest fires and engaging local residents in forest planning, management, and use of the forest with the hope of instilling a sense of ownership and responsibility for the forest.

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