Seeking Sanctuary from Wildfire

Each week, Ben Drew takes a look at a session from the Aerial Fire Fighting Conference offering his personal viewpoint on current issues and potential solutions, on which we encourage
the wider industry to comment.

This week Ben addresses the viewpoint on the plight of the refugee and the real threat of human tragedy by wildland fires.


Seeking Sanctuary from Wildfire


We British are a smug bunch sometimes, but never moreso than when we are originators of something enduring. I predict that my fellow countrymen have not a clue that it was an Englishman, good King Æthelberht of Kent – our first English king to convert to Christianity – who first recognised the right to seek asylum and enshrined it in law in about 600 AD. In those days asylum- or sanctuary as we called it then – could only be sought in a church or other holy places.

The world, now, seems to be awash with asylum seekers and refugees escaping war, persecution or economic meltdown. There are currently estimated to be 700 refugee camps located around the world and the country hosting the largest number of refugees is, unsurprisingly, Syria with 2.5 million. Pakistan is a reasonably close second, hosting 1.6 million refugees.

Under current international law, until a request for refuge has been accepted, the person is referred to as the aforementioned “Asylum Seeker”. It is only after the recognition of the asylum seeker’s protection needs that the person can then be officially referred to as a “Refugee” and enjoys refugee status. This, then, carries certain rights and obligations according to the legislation of the host country to which they seek sanctuary.

Escaping their primary domicile, refugees usually end up in cobbled-together camps built from whatever flotsam and jetsam they can lay their hands on – or, if NGO’s are prepared for them, more organised tent cities. Then they receive emergency food, water and medical aid until it is safe to return them to their original homes or until they are retrieved by other people outside the camps. In some cases it is decided that they will never be safe to return and these people are resettled in third-party countries. However, more often than not, refugees are not resettled and mostly languish in wretched and confined conditions at risk from disease, boredom, unemployment and many possible disheartening mishaps.

So what happens when tragedy befalls refugees while under the watchful eye of their new host country? Who is held to account for their duty of care?

Recently there have been cases in refugee camps where brush and wildfires have swept through encampments and, in these cases, it is incumbent upon the host country to protect them…but this is not easy when local emergency services are already responsible for their own indigenous populations and are based afar from the refugee sites.

At one of the ten refugee border encampments in Thailand in March 2013 more than 60 Karen refugees – a stateless people of 5m souls escaping persecution from Myanmar/Burma – were killed  and more than 100 injured by a brushfire that swept through their forest camp serving as home to about 3,800 people. The fire lasted for three hours and the flames spread quickly because their shacks constructed from dried banana leaves and bamboo rods. About 200 homes were burned to the ground as local Thai firefighting units struggled to respond in time because of their remote location.

Now, travel Westward some 6750km as the crow flies and, today, Lebanon is hosting the greatest per capita concentration (25% of total population) of war refugees on the planet and snow covers the ground, as I write, where more than 1.1 million of them are sheltering – and they are very cold and hungry – and need fuel to cook and keep warm.

With traditional trade routes closed due to war they can no longer buy black market diesel for their cookers and so resident populations, both Syrian and Lebanese, are scratching around for alternative energy sources – including firewood. In the absence of efficient law enforcement and energy substitutes, the illegal felling of forest trees has become a lucrative business.

High wood density fruit trees including citrus, olive, and cherry have been a particular target for firewood. Increases in open dumping and open burning are adding to the depletion of water resources – so there is not enough for drinking, or firefighting, when temperatures start to rise again.

Lebanon no longer receives the precipitation it once did, climate change is largely to blame for that. At this moment the temperature is freezing, but by June – if temperatures soar to approximately 36 degrees Celsius or above – the wildfires will rage again and, as in 2014, massive forest fires could threaten Mount Lebanon and its ancient and iconic Lebanese Cedars – as symbolised on the Lebanese National Flag.

But let’s just imagine, for one moment, that even a small percentage of Lebanon’s refugees decide to take to the forests next summer to seek solace from the scorching sun and to eke out a living amongst the trees. Who is responsible for their safety if, very likely, a campfire or cigarette ignites wildfires which sweep through the forests?

And, if wildfires do burn, how will the Ministry of Interiors’ three Sikorsky S-61 aerial firefighting helicopters suppress the wildfires from the air with refugees congregating amongst the trees?

I could, finally, mention Turkey and their 1m Syrian refugees in scattered camps along their border and the wildfires in 2012 which were deliberately started at four different points on the Syrian side of the border by the Syrian Army in order to deny shelter to rebels…. but, due to strong winds the fires changed direction and spread across into Turkey heading straight for 35,000 Syrians living in a tented refugee camp … but I would just be repeating myself.

At Aerial Firefighting 2015 Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, the Director General of the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC), will discuss the national forest fire prevention campaign and the rapid intervention in fire-fighting measures.