JEDDAH: At least 38 people have died in a series of forest wildfires fanned by drought and a blistering heatwave in northern Algeria.
More than 200 more victims have suffered burns or respiratory problems from the smoke and hundreds have fled their homes as flames spread throughout the El-Tarf region near Algeria’s eastern border with Tunisia.
One witness described “scenes of devastation” on the road to El-Kala in the country’s far northeast. “A tornado of fire swept everything away in seconds,” he said. “Most of those who died were surrounded by flames while visiting a wildlife park.”
The death toll included a family of five found in their home and 12 people who were burned to death inside abus as they tried to escape. “Most of the victims in El-Tarf are vacationers who came to enjoy paradisebeaches and enchanting landscapes,” Prime Minister Aïmene Benabderrahmane said.
In El-Kala there was a strong smell of smoke and authorities feared that strong winds could cause new fires to break out. There was major damage in the wildlife park, and firefighters were also battling a large blaze in the mountainous area of Souk Ahras. A witness described scenes of panic in the city of half a million people, where nearly 100 women and 17 newborn babies had to be evacuated from a hospital near the forest.
Algerian television showed people fleeing their burning homes, with women carrying children in their arms.
Nearly 40 separate blazes were ravaging various parts of northern Algeria as temperatures reached 48C, according to the fire service, and there were fears that hot winds could spark new ones that authorities are illequipped to fight.
The scenes sparked fears of a repeat of fires last year which killed at least 90 people and ravaged 100,000 hectares of forest and farmland in the north. Last year’s catastrophe provoked bitter criticism of authorities over the lack of firefighting aircraft.
Authorities have rented a Russian Beriev BE 200 water bomber plane, but it has suffered a breakdown and is not expected to be operational again until Saturday, Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud said.
The civil protection service and the army do have access to several firefighting helicopters.