ALGIERS, Algeria – At least 26 people died and dozens of others were injured in forest fires that ravaged 14 districts of northern Algeria on Wednesday, the interior minister said.
Kamel Beldjoud told state television that 24 people lost their lives in fires in El Tarf, near the border with Tunisia, in addition to two others who died earlier in Setif.
Emergency services in Setif had said that two women, “a 58-year-old mother and her 31-year-old daughter”, were killed in the town.
In Souk Ahras, further to the east near Algeria’s border with Tunisia, people were seen fleeing their homes as fires spread before firefighting helicopters were deployed.
An earlier toll said four people in Souk Ahras suffered burns and 41 others had breathing difficulties, the authorities said. Media reports said 350 residents had been evacuated.
No updated toll was given on the number of people injured in the fires in other areas.
According to television station Ennahar, around fifty people were taken to hospital in El Tarf, a town with a population of around 100,000.
The gendarmerie has closed several roads as a result of the fires.
“Thirty-nine fires are underway in 14 districts,” the emergency services said, noting that El Tarf was the worst hit, with 16 fires in progress.
– Water bombers –
Helicopters used suspended buckets to drop water on fires in three areas, including Souk Ahras.
Algeria chartered a Russian water bomber plane, but it had broken down and will not be working again until Saturday, Beldjoud said.
The fires have reopened a debate over concerns there are not enough water bombers in the country.
According to the Mena Defense website, the Algerian authorities cancelled a contract with a Spanish company for the supply of seven water bomber planes following Algeria’s diplomatic fall out with Madrid earlier this year.
No action has been taken to replace the Spanish planes, which were set to be supplied by Air Nostrum subsidiary Plysa, according to local media.
Since the start of August, 106 fires have broken out in Algeria, destroying more than 2,500 hectares of woodland.
Beldjoud said some of the fires were started by people.
Wednesday’s toll brings the total number of people killed in wildfires this summer up to 30.
Algeria is Africa’s largest country but it only has 4.1 million hectares (10.1 million acres) of forest.
Each year the north of the country is affected by forest fires, a problem that has worsened due to climate change.
Last year, at least 90 people died in forest fires that ravaged northern Algeria, destroying more than 100,000 hectares of woodland.