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Hundreds fight forest fire in southern Georgia

22 August 2017
(The administration of government)

It’s been three days since firefighters and lifeguards have been trying to contain a wildfire in southern Georgia’s Samtskhe–Javakheti region. The fire has devastated more than 12 hectares (120,000 m²) of land, leaving adjacent villages in panic. No casualties were reported.

According to Mindia Janelidze, the head of Georgia’s Crisis Management Council, a special body was created on 21 August to coordinate the works and ‘all possible bodies have been mobilised’.  Government officials, including Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili are heading the council.

On the morning of 22 August, the council announced that more than 300 firefighters were on the ground trying to contain the fire for the whole night. Tens of fire engines from different regions of Georgia are still trying to contain the fire, local media outlet Samkhretis Karibche reported.

Three helicopters, including two from Azerbaijan, have been trying to kill the fire since 6 am on 22 August. According to the recent statement from the council, two others are on their way from Turkey to help. According to Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), Turkish helicopters are set to arrive by 3 pm.

How the fire spread

A small fire near Borjomi’s village of Daba broke out on 20 August near a forest which was previously devastated during the 2008 August War.

Many in the nearby villages of Daba and Tsaghveri stayed outside their houses at night in fear that fire would spread to their settlements, but mass evacuation was not necessary. Only one family, very near to the fire, was forced to leave their house, Samkhretis Karibche wrote.

According to the Crisis Management Council, at first the fire didn’t spread to the forest, but to  land covered with grass. Regional fire services began fighting the fire soon after, but were unsuccessful due to strong wind. It spread to 500 m2.

A helicopter tried to contain the fire in the evening, but due to heavy smoke and the lack of visibility, it stopped working at night.

In the morning of 21 August, the fire devastated five hectares (50,000 m²), according to Samkhretis Karibche, but it had not spread to the forest yet. By midday, local firefighters said they contained the fire.

Due to strong wind in the evening, the fire grew stronger and the places where it was previously contained went ablaze again. Neighbouring Azerbaijan sent a helicopter to help, which, along with the Georgian one, worked until night.

The fire almost reached the village of Daba, leaving the villagers in panic. Prime Minister Kvirikashvili rushed to the disaster area and said the situation was under control and there was no reason for panic and evacuation.

Samkhretis Karibche said the places where more than 30,000 seedlings were planted since September 2016 were also devastated.

A volunteer group was created on Facebook in the evening of 21 August. A number of volunteers said they were ready to help. However, one of the organisers, Nata Peradze from Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi, wrote that officials said that at this stage, volunteers would only make it difficult for firefighters to work. Interior Minister said it was dangerous to include volunteers in the works. ‘We have enough power to contain the fire’, he added.

Samkhretis Karibche reported that many in Daba think the reaction from the officials was too late, and in case they mobilised the vehicles and helicopters earlier, such devastation could have been avoided.

Environmental damage will be assessed in a few days after the fire is fully contained, the Ministry of Environment has stated.