Efforts are made to put out a brush fire in Syria as seen in a July 20, 2023, social medial post.

Efforts are made to put out a brush fire in Syria as seen in a July 20, 2023, social medial post. (Syria Civil Defence - The White Helmets/Facebook)

BEIRUT - Earlier this month, as fires raged across Syria's Mediterranean coast, President Bashar al-Assad visited firefighters in the northern countryside of Latakia, a government stronghold.

"You have made great efforts in very difficult circumstances that can be likened to the battles that were taking place," Assad told them, referring to the country's devastating decade-long civil war. "There's terrorists and real battles, and there's the weather and the wind itself maneuvering forces from side to side."

The fires sweeping across northwestern Syria this summer have compounded a dire humanitarian situation. The region, still reeling from two massive earthquakes in February and a grinding economic crisis, remains divided among rival factions and isolated from the world. Firefighters on both sides of the conflict are now trying to confront a common enemy, but are hobbled by a lack of support from the government and the international community.

The fires started in late July, the latest in a series of blazes across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Algeria. A transformer explosion ignited the fires, according to a local forestry expert in Latakia, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal. Heat waves, low humidity and strong winds allowed the flames to spread quickly across the pine-covered mountains and sparked other fires in neighboring Idlib and Hama provinces.

Husam Zelito, 47, has fought fires for more than 20 years in and around Idlib. A government firefighter before the war, he is now a member of Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the "White Helmets," a group of aid workers and first responders that operates in rebel-held areas.

"Forest fires are the most challenging, and where we are struggling a lot," he told The Post. "The human resources are there, but we need special vehicles that can cover the steep slopes and roads. Our trucks cannot reach some areas, and this slows the response time."

At least 17 people have died in fires this year, according to the White Helmets, including 13 children. Nearly 80 people have been injured.

Even in government-held Latakia, war and Western sanctions have depleted local resources, the forestry expert said: In 2011, "we had around 550 firetrucks. Now there are less than 140, and they lack maintenance."

The government's stranglehold on information has made it difficult to determine the extent of the fire damage. Early reports said at least 370 acres had been burned; weeks later, no updated figures have been released. Latakia's governor, Amer Hilal, has formed a committee to assess the full impact. No deaths have been reported in government areas.

"We have to wait a bit before getting a precise estimate," the expert in Latakia said, but there's "massive destruction - the forests are intertwined with a lot of agricultural lands and farms. People had to leave their homes."

The director of Latakia's agriculture department, Bassem Doba, told state media that extinguishing the fires has been especially difficult because the affected area is still littered with land mines.

But government media has stressed that the situation is under control, and has published a few photos of the fires. Pictures from Assad's visit to Latakia show him surrounded by firefighters. Charred trees are visible in the background.

On its Facebook page, the Latakia Fire Brigade thanked Assad for his visit but asked him to raise the profile "of firefighters' work in Syria . . . which is considered one of the lowest among government."

In a rare critique, Thaer al-Hassan, head of the fire brigade in Hama, east of Latakia, told the government-aligned Al Watan newspaper that firefighters should receive higher salaries, noting that sanitation workers are better-paid.

High turnover has reduced the Hama brigade to 97 firefighters, Hassan said previously, noting that at least 60 more men were needed. In addition to forest fires, he said, the crews routinely have to put out tanker fires and are often attacked by rebel fighters.

Frustration has been building for years as fire seasons get longer and more intense. Muhammad Debsawy, another fire captain in Hama, put it bluntly last year: "It is unreasonable for a firefighter to be exposed to fire and toxic gases while extinguishing a blaze, and to only receive a monthly compensation of 290 Syrian pounds, which is not enough to buy falafel."

National officials doubled salaries for government workers this week, but the decision was accompanied by an increase in fuel prices.

Though Syria was readmitted to the Arab League in May and has recently normalized relations with a number of its formerly adversarial neighbors, those moves have done little to slow the collapse of its economy. At the beginning of the year, one U.S. dollar was equivalent to 6,650 Syrian pounds; the figure now is 14,300.

Ninety percent of Syrians are living in poverty. Last year, 14.6 million people needed humanitarian assistance, according the United Nations, more than at any point during the course of the war.

In Idlib, home to nearly 2.9 million people displaced by the conflict, firefighting falls to the White Helmets, who are also responsible for responding to government airstrikes and other emergencies. This year alone, they say, they've been called to nearly 2,000 fires.

"Sometimes in one day you have five to seven fires," Zelito said. "In some other countries, maybe they would have asked for international support. The vegetation cover is becoming more and more scarce year after year, and the green areas are decreasing."

George Mitri, a professor at Lebanon's University of Balamand, echoed Zelito, saying conditions are ripe for further spread. As climate change fuels recurring fires in the region, he said, they will be increasingly hard to control.

"This is where we start losing the biodiversity on the site, because it cannot recover easily after two fires within a relatively short period of time," he said. "So it burns again and again."

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