Algerian firefighters were on Thursday fighting a chain of flamesfueled by drought and a scorching heat wave, which has killed at least 38 people and left destruction in its wake.
deadly forest fires have become an annual scourge in the North African country, where the climate crisis is turning large areas into a tinderbox.
According to multiple sources, including local journalists and the fire service, at least 38 people have died, most in El Tarf province, near Algeria’s eastern border with Tunisia, which was burning at 48°C (118°F). .
At least 200 more people have suffered burns or respiratory problems from the smoke, according to Algerian media.
A journalist from El Tarf described scenes of devastation on the road to El Kala in the far northeast of the country.
“A fire tornado wiped out everything in seconds,” he told AFP by phone. “Most of those who died were surrounded while visiting a wildlife park.”
Emergency services were still battling a fire around Lake Tonga, he said.
An AFP team in El Kala reported a strong smell of smoke and said authorities feared strong winds could spark new fires.
They also saw extensive damage to the wildlife park and a witness, who asked not to be identified, said 12 people had been burned to death on their bus as they tried to escape.
Several roads in the area were closed.
State television reported Thursday morning that Prime Minister Ayman Benabderrahmane was visiting the area.
Firefighters were also battling a large fire in the mountainous area of Souk Ahras, a journalist from the area told AFP.
He described scenes of panic in the city of half a million people, where almost 100 women and 17 newborn babies had to be evacuated from a hospital near the forest.
Algerian television showed people fleeing their burning homes, women with children in their arms. Local media reports said 350 people had fled their homes.
Some 39 fires were burning in various parts of northern Algeria, according to the fire service, and there were fears that hot winds could spark new fires that authorities are not well prepared to fight.
The scenes sparked fears of a repeat of last year’s fires, which killed at least 90 people and devastated 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of forest and farmland in the north of the country.
Last year’s catastrophe sparked bitter criticism of the authorities for the lack of firefighting planes.
Authorities rented a Russian Beriev Be-200 water bomber, but it had broken down and was not expected to be operational again until Saturday, Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud said.
The civil protection service and the army have access to several firefighting helicopters.
Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Africa’s largest country, which has more than 4 million hectares of forest.
A specialist, who asked not to be identified, told AFP that in the 1980s the country had 22 Grumman aircraft to fight forest fires but that they had been “sold cheaply, without any alternative solution being proposed”.
Algeria had agreed to buy seven firefighting aircraft from the Spanish firm Plysa but canceled the contract after a diplomatic dispute over Western Sahara in late June, according to the specialized Mena Defense website.
Since the beginning of August, 106 fires have broken out in Algeria, destroying 800 hectares of forest and 1,800 hectares of woodland, according to Beldjoud, who said some were caused by arson.