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Raging Wildfires Kill 34 People in Algeria

FILE - Firefighters attempt to extinguish a raging forest fire near the town of Melloula in northwestern Tunisia close to the border with Algeria on July 24, 2023.

ALGIERS - Algerian firefighters were Tuesday battling blazes that have so far killed 34 people — 23 of them in the coastal region of Bejaia, according to authorities and a local radio station keeping track of the grim toll in Bejaia.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune sent his condolences to the families of those killed — among them 10 soldiers trapped by flames at Beni Ksila, in Bejaia province, according to the defense ministry.

Witnesses described fleeing walls of flames that raged "like a blowtorch," and TV footage showed charred cars, burned-out shops and smoldering fields and scrub-land as thousands of residents were evacuated.

Severe fires raged through the mountain forests of the Kabylia region on the Mediterranean coast, fanned by hot winds amid blistering summer heat that peaked at 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) Monday.

Authorities reported progress in fighting back the almost 100 fires reported in recent days, having mobilized more than 8,000 civil defense personnel, over 500 fire trucks and multiple chartered aircraft.

"Out of 97 declared fires, only 15 remained" at 0730 GMT Tuesday, including two in worst-hit Bejaia, civil defense information officer Karim Belhafsi said on national television.

The interior ministry expected to soon announce "the total extinction of all fires," he said, as the public prosecutor of Bejaia ordered an investigation into the causes of the fires and possible perpetrators.

An unknown number of people suffered injuries from burns to smoke inhalation, and more than 1,500 were evacuated as the fires hit 15 provinces, especially Bejaia, Bouira and Jijel.

Climate change and drought

Much of the water-scarce northern African region has been hit by serious drought, severe summer heat and regular wildfires, a trend expected to worsen as climate change intensifies.

Serious fires have also raged in recent days in neighboring Tunisia, especially the northwestern Tabarka region.

An AFP team there witnessed significant damage and saw helicopters and Canadair water bombers in action.

More than 300 people were evacuated from the coastal village of Melloula by boat and overland. Northern and eastern Algeria battle forest fires every summer.

In August last year, 37 people were killed by fires in the northeastern El Tarf region, a year after 90 died, mostly in Kabylia.

To prepare for this year's fire season, Algerian authorities deployed observation drones and created multiple helicopter landing sites.

The government in May announced the purchase of a large water bomber aircraft and the rental of six others from South America.

Algeria also placed an order with Russia for four water bombers, but reported that their delivery was delayed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.