More than 10% of a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve has been destroyed by fires that swept through northeastern Algeria, killing at least 38 people, an expert told AFP on Saturday.
The figure quoted by Rafik Baba Ahmed, former director of the El Kala Biosphere Reserve, means the burned area of the park alone is nearly double what civil defense officials say has been destroyed since June in Africa’s largest country.
Northeastern Algeria has been particularly hard hit by fires exacerbated by climate change since Wednesday. Fierce fires have become an annual phenomenon in Algeria’s parched forests, where climate change is exacerbating a prolonged drought.
But the fire service said on Saturday that most of the fires there had been extinguished.
“Wednesday’s fires damaged about 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres)” of the park, Baba Ahmed said.
According to the United Nations Cultural Agency UNESCO, the El Kala Biosphere Reserve covers more than 76,000 hectares.
It is the last refuge of the Barbary Red Deer and “home to a most remarkable birdlife, more than 60,000 migratory birds each winter,” says the UNESCO website.
“It is (a) mosaic of ecosystems of sea, dunes, lakes and forests, with its marine strip rich in corals, Posidonia meadows and fish,” says UNESCO.
According to Baba Ahmed, the forest covers 54,000 hectares of the park and most of the trees are cork oak.
“It is considered one of the most important biodiversity reserves in the Mediterranean,” he said, praising its “exceptional biological wealth”.
Baba Ahmed said he was “very pessimistic” about the future of the area regularly damaged by wildfires.
“Over time, the fires weaken the forest, making it vulnerable to other attacks: harmful insects but especially human activities.”
As a result, the area is losing its flora and fauna, the forestry expert adds.
Civil Defense Colonel Boualem Boughlef said on television Friday evening that 1,242 fires have destroyed 5,345 hectares of forest in Algeria since June 1.
Baba Ahmed said that figure is not realistic.
While the northeastern fires in Algeria have been largely extinguished, firefighters have been fighting two fires across the country in Tlemcen, in the far west, the Civil Defense said on its Facebook page on Saturday. And the fire service tweeted late Friday that fires were raging in the far northeastern regions of El Tarf and Skikda.
State television showed images of an army fire-fighting plane over El Tarf, and police said several highways in the area were closed.
The fires prompted Algerians both at home and in the diaspora to collect clothes, medicines and food to help those affected. More than 1,000 families have been evacuated since Wednesday.
The Justice Department launched an investigation after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of the fires this year had been deliberately lit, and authorities announced four arrests of suspected arsonists on Thursday.
If found guilty, they could face anywhere from 10 years to life
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has also offered support, and French President Emmanuel Macron has called his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune to express his condolences “for the victims of the fires,” the state news agency APS reported on Saturday.
Spain and Portugal have also fought massive forest fires over the past week, including in another UNESCO World Heritage Park, which is estimated to have scorched more than 25,000 hectares.