The death count climbed to at least 69 as firefighters, soldiers and civilian volunteers battled blazes in forests across northern Algeria on Wednesday, in the latest wildfires to sweep the Mediterranean.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared three days of national mourning starting from Thursday, and authorities say they suspect widespread arson after so many fires erupted in such a short space of time.
In an update, state-run news agency APS said the rash of more than 50 fires that broke out Tuesday had claimed four more lives, in addition to state television’s tally of 65 dead, including 28 soldiers deployed to help overstretched emergency services.
Several arrests have been announced, but the identities or suspected motives of those detained have not been disclosed.
Images of trapped villagers, terrified livestock and forested hillsides reduced to blackened stumps were shared on social media, many of them accompanied by pleas for help.
AFP journalists saw villagers desperately trying to put out the spreading fires with makeshift brooms in an effort to save their homes.
– ‘Alarming’ –
High winds fuelled the rapid spread of the flames in tinder-dry conditions created by a heatwave across North Africa and the wider Mediterranean, fire official Youcef Ould Mohamed told APS.
Scores of separate wildfires remained active Wednesday, spread across 17 provinces, emergency services spokesman Nassim Barnaoui told reporters.
Most of the fires and 16 of the deaths were recorded in Tizi Ouzou district, in the mainly Berber region of Kabylie, east of the capital Algiers.
“I left all my stock in my village and fled to Tizi Ouzou with my wife and three children,” said Abdelhamid Boudraren, a shopkeeper from the village of Beni Yeni.
The situation was “alarming”, Letreche Hakim, the head of civil protection in Bejaia, the second biggest city in Kabylie, told APS.
There have been mounting calls for aid convoys to be sent to the worst-hit districts with food and medicine from the capital.
On Wednesday, an AFP correspondent saw several lorries headed to Tizi Ouzou with aid donated by the public.
French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter that France would send two Canadair firefighting planes and a command aircraft to the Kabylie region on Thursday to help.
Neighbouring Morocco, with whom Algeria has long had strained ties over the Western Sahara, also expressed a readiness to help.
Rabat offered two Canadair planes “if the Algerian authorities agree”, a Moroccan foreign ministry statement said.
Algeria is also chartering two firefighting planes from the EU, aircraft recently being used to stop fires in Greece.
Meteorologists expect the heatwave across North Africa to continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).
– Fires in Tunisia –
In Algeria’s neighbour Tunisia, the temperature in the capital Tunis hit an all-time record of 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.
The Tunisian emergency services reported 15 fires across the north and northwest, but no casualties.
On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, Turkey reported eight deaths and Greece three from wildfires that have raged for the past two weeks.
Each summer, Algeria endures seasonal wildfires, but rarely anything approaching this year’s disaster.
In 2020, nearly 440 square kilometres (170 square miles) of forest were destroyed by fire.
On Monday, the UN released a major report showing how the threat from global warming is even more acute than previously thought.
It highlighted how scientists are quantifying the extent to which human-induced warming increases the intensity and/or likelihood of a specific extreme weather event, such as a heatwave or a wildfire.
Climate change amplifies droughts, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to spread out of control and inflict unprecedented material and environmental damage.
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