Flames erupted across northern Algeria on Thursday as the country observed a national day of mourning for dozens of people killed in recent forest fires to cover the Mediterranean.
The North African country has been gripping devastating fires since Monday that have claimed 69 lives – 41 civilians and 28 soldiers. Soldiers and civilian volunteers have joined firefighters on several fronts in an effort to put out the fires that are being blown by windy and dry dry conditions.
In the district of Tizi Ouzou, the area with the highest number of injured, a journalist from Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that entire forest sectors go up in smoke as far as the eye can see. The villagers forced to evacuate to escape the flames began to seep back to their homes, overwhelmed by the extent of the damage.
“I have nothing left. My workshop, my car, my apartment. The tiles were also destroyed,” one of them told AFP. But he said he had “managed to save his family” while adding that “neighbors died or lost their relatives”.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared three days of national mourning starting on Thursday, and authorities say they suspect a burnout after so many fires broke out in such a short time.
On the fourth day of the forest fires, efforts continue to overcome the fires in many regions where civilians and soldiers often joined the fight with limited means. Pictures of trapped villagers, terrified cattle and wooded slopes reduced to black stumps have been shared on social media. Algeria also charters two European Union firefighting aircraft, aircraft recently used to stop fires in Greece.
France announced on Wednesday that it would send three more aircraft. Neighboring Morocco, to which Algeria has long had strained ties across Western Sahara, also expressed a willingness to help by providing two planes.
In view of the scale of the disaster, demand for help is increasing in Algeria and beyond. “Individuals and associations are mobilizing … by organizing collections of clothing, food, medicine and hygiene products,” the TSA news website said, calling it an “increase in solidarity.”
High winds drove the rapid spread of the flames in tinder-dry conditions created by a heat wave over North Africa and the wider Mediterranean. The authorities have raised the possibility of criminal behavior.
Four suspected “murderers” have been arrested so far, but their identities or suspected motives have not yet been revealed. The head of the Armed Forces, Said Chengriha, visited soldiers in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, another hard-hit area.
Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane also visited Tizi Ouzou. Every summer, Algeria undergoes seasonal forest fires, but rarely does anything approach this year’s disaster. Meteorologists expect the Maghreb heat wave to continue until the end of the week, with temperatures in Algeria reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
Across the border in Tunisia, temperatures in the capital Tunis reached an all-time high of 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday. On the northern shores of the Mediterranean, deadly forest fires have ravaged Turkey and Greece for the past two weeks.
In Italy, where firefighters battled more than 500 fires overnight, Sicily recorded a temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which is believed to be a new European record.