Since 22 May, the Zagros mountain range in southwestern Iran has been ravaged by forest fires spreading across thousands of hectares. Iran is woefully underprepared to deal with the country’s hot season because of a lack of resources and budget, and so extinguishing the fire falls to volunteers. Locals have almost no tools with which to fight the fire, apart from tree branches and leaf blowers. Iranian officials, meanwhile, have tried to deny the extent of the damage.
The Zagros mountain range along Iran’s western border is home to many unique species of flora and fauna, with 40% of all plants used for medicinal purposes found in the region. However, drought and overconsumption of resources have damaged the forests in the region, and now wildfires threaten it too
The first wildfire began on 22 May in the Zagros mountains, 2.5 kilometers north-east of Gachsaran, a city in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province in southwest Iran.
The next two fires began on 28 May, nine kilometers away from the first fire in the Dil region and 20 kilometers from the second one in the natural conservation area of Khaiez.
NASA satellite images from 22 May to 2 June show that a forest fire ravaged the area and allows us to monitor the fire’s spread.
On 1 June, the head of the Department of Environment in Iran’s parliament, Issa Kalantari, claimed that only 990 hectares of forest in the Zagros region were affected by wildfires last month. “We should not exaggerate, as though the whole country were burning,” he said. However, the FRANCE 24 Observers has been able to refute this claim by using satellite images to map just how far the fires spread and how much forest was burnt.
According to satellite images, at least 9,500 hectares of forest have been burned in these three fires near Gachsaran, Dil, and Kahiez in the period between 22 May and 2 June – more than nine times the surface area claimed by Iranian officials.
According to our Observers, it took 12 days to extinguish these fires. This is primarily because of strong winds, but also because the task of fighting the fire had to be done without any equipment.
“Some people start fires to take revenge on the “system” or the government”
Ali is a local environmental activist. He helped to extinguish the fire in the Khaiez protected area.
Unfortunately, all the recent fires were set deliberately. The fire in the Khaiez region began after two locals argued and one of them set fire to the pasture shared between them. Police detained them only for a day. Two other fires were also started deliberately but the perpetrators haven’t been arrested yet.
According to the Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organisation, 95% of fires in the Zagros region are due to human error or, worse, deliberate acts.
Locals burn the trees to have more pasture for their animals, or simply to get charcoal and sell it. There are some sick people who want to take revenge on the “system” and the government by committing arson, and people who start campfires outside and then don’t extinguish them properly. They don’t care because they have no idea that this small fire could become a conflagration and destroy kilometers of forest.
These fires would happen anyway, like everywhere in the world, but the difference is that we do not have resources like extinguishers, airplanes or helicopters, or even proper safety equipment and we have to try to extinguish the fire with tree branches.
We have seen an amphibious helicopter only once or twice. We’ve also seen army and Revolutionary Guard helicopters, who were transferring volunteers or soldiers to help to control the fire – but they had no equipment. When we asked them, “Why don’t you help more often?”, they said that they didn’t have enough fuel.
Video showing Iranian volunteers trying to control the fire.
The local army commander said on 31 May they had sent out helicopters 108 times to dispatch 530 volunteers to the wildfire zones since 29 May, with only two helicopters. However, according to our local Observers, the fires were actually extinguished by locals and volunteers who climbed the mountains to reach the fires.
“We didn’t know where the fire was spreading”
In the last few days, some donors gave us money to buy six leaf blowers, which is one of the most important tools to extinguish a fire in a region like Zagros, where trees are sparse and there is a large layer of bushes that are dry in this period of the year [Editor’s note: Each leaf blower costs 25 million toman, equivalent to about €1380].
We had to cut branches for each volunteer and then they have to hit the fire with the branch to try to extinguish it. It takes lots of energy and time to get a fire like this under control, but with a leaf blower it’s much faster and easier.”
Another problem we had was the lack of management. We did not have any information, for example where the fire was spreading or where it had already been got under control. Local officials would announce that the fire was totally extinguished, but when volunteers went back after a few hours, they would find that the fire had started again in another spot, and volunteers would have to climb up again to reach the fires.
Fortunately, as far as we know there, no large animals like wild goats, sheep or leopards died in the fires, but we know many small animals like birds, rodents, and snakes were killed in the flames, along with many precious plants like the Persian turpentine tree, wild almond trees, and Syrian ash trees.
Leaf blowers are a crucial piece of equipment to help put out the fires. Video sent by our Observer.
“We don’t have any money to pay for extinguishing the fires in our region, not a cent”
A local official in the Forests, Range and Watershed Management Organisation in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province, who preferred to stay anonymous, explained the lack of equipment to FRANCE 24:
The short and simple explanation is we do not have any money to pay for extinguishing the fires in our region, not a cent. We used to have a specific budget for fighting forest fires, but we haven’t had anything for about a year. They simply cut out this part from the annual budget. We even have problems paying the salaries of the people here.
The firefighting helicopter does not belong to us; we have to rent it and we have no money for that. We don’t have any money to pay the army and the Red Crescent who dispatched the helicopters. They only did it after the news about the fire got lots of attention. Some years ago, the government presented a firefighting airplane, but since then no one has seen it – apparently, it was only for show. So as you saw, for extinguishing the fires we are dependent on volunteers and donors. And not only did we not have the proper equipment to extinguish the fire, but we had nothing to protect ourselves.
According to our Observers, at least 10 volunteers were injured fighting the fires, including Alborz Zarei, a climber who was severely burnt.
this report first published here on France24.