War heightens risk of wildfires in south Lebanon this summer

Israeli white phosphorus bombs led to 134 forest fires and over 100 civilian injuries in southern Lebanon in October, according to AUB. Experts warn that if Israel continues to use incendiary munitions, this year could be worse.

War heightens risk of wildfires in south Lebanon this summer

A fire index map documenting potential danger zones for risks of fires across Lebanon. (University of Balamand)

BEIRUT — War-torn southern Lebanon faces a high risk of wildfires this summer due to Israeli munitions, including incendiary white phosphorus and flare bombs, in what experts describe as an "environmental massacre."

Since the start of the conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli army on Oct. 8, the latter has been using white phosphorus to set fire to forests and fields in border areas. 

On Tuesday, fierce wildfires erupted in the southern villages of Shaqra, Aitaroun, Mais al-Jabal, Ainata, Maroun al-Ras, Yaroun, Debel, Rmeish, Aita al-Shaab, Blida, Taybeh, following artillery shelling and white phosphorus, Hasan Fakih, head of the Nabatieh civil defense center, told L'Orient Today. "The last fire we put out was at 3 a.m.," he added.

“Fire season in Lebanon this year has started earlier than normal,” said George Mitri, ​​advisor to the Environment Minister and director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at the Environment Institute at the University of Balamand. The program analyzes forest fires across Lebanon and runs an online platform tracking wildfire risks based on weather data.

Thursday’s daily report on the online platform listed various villages in the districts of Nabatieh, Bint Jbeil, Hasbaya, Marjayoun and Sour, which are covered with olive, pine and two types of centuries-old oak trees, as at "moderate," "high," and “extreme danger” of wildfires, marking a risk surge.

Since the start of hostilities in October, wildfires have been commonplace. In October, white phosphorus munitions used by the Israeli army along Lebanon's southern border caused 134 forest fires and injured more than 100 civilians, according to a policy brief by the American University of Beirut (AUB). 

If nothing changes to Israel's policy of using incendiary munitions, "the risk of wildfires and burned areas might be higher this year," Mitri told L'Orient Today.

Fertile ground for fires to start

Fakih emphasized that wildfires always have an igniter, whether intentional or accidental, and are exacerbated by environmental factors like high temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius, soil humidity below 25 percent, dry vegetation due to high temperatures, and strong winds.

The main fire igniter in southern Lebanon today is white phosphorus, the use of which has been continuous by the Israeli army, with a significant increase since May 25, Fakih told L'Orient Today.

On May 8, Israel fired at least three white phosphorus shells at Aitaroun and Blida in the Marjayoun district. On May 19, fires caused by white phosphorus in Marjayoun were also reported. 

The region's geography, which includes vast farmland, natural reserves, and forests, complicates firefighting efforts, especially with limited access to water and the presence of land mines, Fakih said. To ensure the safety of civil defense teams, the Lebanese Army has been accompanying them during firefighting missions.

Civil defense teams in southern Lebanon have been working around the clock since October. Typically, they get a respite after fire season, but before they could catch their breath, the war between Hezbollah and Israel began, increasing their workload as they responded to fatalities, injuries, damages, and fires caused by Israeli shelling.

The use of white phosphorus

White phosphorus munitions, while legally used for smoke screens, illumination, marking targets, and burning structures, are classified as incendiary weapons under Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which prohibits their use against military targets in proximity to civilian areas, though Israel is not a signatory to this protocol.

White phosphorus shelling can "cause extensive fires that spread over large areas and continue to burn until the material is fully depleted," according to AUB's policy brief.

In October, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused the Israeli army of firing artillery shells containing white phosphorous in military operations along Lebanon's southern border, saying the use of such weapons puts civilians at risk of serious and long-term injury. An investigation by The Washington Post revealed that the white phosphorus munitions Israel is using are US-supplied.

One of the forests burnt down in southern Lebanon following the Israeli bombardments. Photo from Green Southerners.

Damage 'bigger' than 2006 war

Lebanon's National Early Warning System platform, updated by the National Council for Scientific Research (NCSR), shows that up until Jan. 1, 2024, approximately eight million square meters (800 hectares) of land experienced fires resulting from Israeli attacks.

This area had almost doubled by May 5, reaching approximately 1567.8 hectares.

“Of this area, 105 hectares represent the total area of burned olive trees, 69 hectares represent the area of burned bananas and citrus fruits, and 1139 hectares represent the total area of burned oak trees,” according to the National Early Warning System.

Already in November, at least 50,000 olive trees had been lost, according to Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan.

Between Oct. 7 and May 21, Israel dropped 175 incendiary flare bombs on Lebanon and fired 140 phosphorus shells across the border, according to Lebanon's National Early Warning System.

"White phosphorus contamination impacts the soil ecosystem, particularly the topsoil, which is the most fertile layer and takes an average of 100 years or more to form," Hicham Younes, chairman of local environmental organization Green Southerners, told L'Orient Today. "The time it takes for contaminated soil to recover is a complex matter."

"Setting forests on fire intentionally is considered an environmental massacre," Mitri said. 

The environmental damage in southern Lebanon "is greater than that of the 2006 [war]," when Israel mainly used cluster bombs to incur damage, Younes said.

"White phosphorus contamination also affects all kinds of living organisms in the soil, including animals and insects that use it as a shelter—many mammals, rodents, insects, reptiles, and even birds, such as the little owl," Younes added.

Documenting the environmental impact has been challenging, Mitri added. While the ministry uses satellite imagery, collecting soil samples and conducting ground studies have become more difficult, due to security risks. 

The organization Green Southerners relies on local volunteers to document the damage and rescue animals, but their work has become riskier since the onset of the war, Younes told L'Orient Today.

Wildfire risk in other parts of Lebanon

The risk of wildfires in other parts of the country is also "higher" this year compared to previous years, Mitri told L'Orient Today, making this fire season "more difficult."

April 2024 was Earth's warmest April on record, with global temperatures averaging 1.32 degrees C above the 20th-century norm, marking the 11th consecutive month of record-high global temperatures, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Last summer, Lebanon saw near-daily wildfires, particularly in Akkar governorate where public funding and equipment shortages for the Civil Defense mean some volunteer groups are also stepping in to help.

The Environment Ministry is set to launch its annual National Fire Campaign, which focuses on "spreading awareness on wildfires, working on better coordination among rescue teams and authorities, and supporting local communities and first responder teams," Mitri said.

"Fast intervention is a main factor in preventing big wildfires and this is not available in southern [Lebanon] today due to the security situation, which will complicate things," Mitri added.

Correction: An earlier version of this article noted that most of the destruction caused by Israel in the 2006 war resulted from land mines. This information has been updated: Most of the destruction was caused by cluster bombs.

BEIRUT — War-torn southern Lebanon faces a high risk of wildfires this summer due to Israeli munitions, including incendiary white phosphorus and flare bombs, in what experts describe as an "environmental massacre."Since the start of the conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli army on Oct. 8, the latter has been using white phosphorus to set fire to forests and fields in border...