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Spate of fires ravage Algeria's Kabylia region

At least seven people have died due to fires during a heatwave and water shortages. Some have blamed the blazes on arson
Smoke rises above the hills of Kabylia in northeastern Algeria on 10 August 2021 (AFP)

More than 30 fires have ravaged northern Algeria since Monday, killing at least seven people, according to firefighters and local forestry authorities, amid an ongoing heatwave.

Firefighters were trying to extinguish 31 fires in 14 districts in the north of the country, many of them in the Kabylia region. Ten fires were underway in Tizi Ouzou, one of the most populated towns in Kabylia, while four others had sparked in Jijel to the east.

Translation: Kabylia is burning, save Kabylia

The towns of Bouira; Setif; Khenchela; Guelma; Bejaia; Bordj Bou Arreridj; Boumerdes; Tiaret; Medea; Tebessa; Blida; and Skikda were also affected by fires, the general directorate of civil protection said on Twitter

Two people died in Ait Yenni because of the fires, while another died in Yakourene - a forest area known as the "lung" of the region. Another casualty was reported near Azazga, Youcef Ould Mohamed, a local forest conservator, was quoted by Algerian press agency APS as saying, before later reporting a fifth victim in Tizi Ouzou.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud, who took stock of the situation during a visit to Tizi Ouzou, announced that seven people had died because of the fires.

Strong winds fuelling the spread of the flames have further complicated the task of first responders, Ould Mohamed told APS.

The blazes are sweeping through as Algeria is experiencing a heatwave amid water shortages in the country. Temperatures reached up to 46 degrees Celsius on Tuesday.

Translation: An overview of the extent of the main fire to have struck the Tizi Ouzou district. I think that these fires have directly affected around 200,000 inhabitants.

Images of the fires circulated on social media, as well as calls for solidarity for villagers besieged by the flames.

Ould Mohamed, meanwhile, maintained that several of the fires in the Tizi Ouzou district were “of criminal origin".

"The simultaneous triggering of around 30 fires, including 10 large ones in different municipalities of the district on the same day, as a special meteorological bulletin issues a heatwave alert, cannot have a natural origin," he claimed. "In our experience, it is impossible for the origin of these fires to be natural. This is arson."

A report by the Algerian Space Agency has indicated that the ongoing forest fires had started, "all without exception", from the edges of the forests. 

During a cabinet meeting on 25 July, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune ordered the drafting of a bill against forest arson, calling for sentences of up to 30 years in prison or even life imprisonment if the fire killed people.

In early July, three people were arrested over suspicions of being involved in fires that devastated 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of forests in the Aures mountain range in northeastern Algeria. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 8,500 hectares (21,000 acres) of forest have burnt down since the beginning of July, more than three times the total forest area devastated by flames at the same time last year.

The largest country in Africa, Algeria has only 4.1 million hectares (10.1 million acres) of forests, with a meagre reforestation rate of 1.76 percent. The country is affected by forest fires every year, with nearly 44,000 hectares (108,000 acres) of vegetation going up in smoke in 2020. Algerian authorities also arrested a number of suspected arsonists last year.