Syria Kurds alarmed as fire ravages wheat near oil installations

Al Qahtaniyah (Syria) (AFP) –


A Kurdish official in northeast Syria called for help from the US-backed coalition Monday as fires ravaged through vital wheat fields in the latest of such blazes nationwide.

Syria's Kurds have led the fight against the Islamic State group in the north and east of the country, backed by a US-led military coalition.

As the eight-year civil war winds down, they are seeking to retain a degree of autonomy from the Damascus regime in a large cereal and oil-rich region their control in the northeast of the country.

"Fires today engulfed hundreds of hectares of wheat in Tirbespi and the fires are still raging," the head of the Kurdish agriculture authority Salman Bardo said, referring to the town named Al-Qahtaniya in Arabic.

"It's a huge danger for the region because the fire is close to oil wells and stations," he warned.

An AFP correspondent saw black smoke billow over golden fields scorched black, as men tried to put out flames with shovels just metres (yards) away from oil installations.

One man in a bulldozer was desperately trying to plough the earth to stop the fire from spreading.

"We ask the international coalition to intervene to extinguish the fires using special fire planes" we don't have, Bardo said.

Abderrizq al-Mahmud, a 29-year-old wheat grower, said his family's land had been destroyed.

"Forty-five hectares have gone up in flames, and I only have eight hectares left" after the fire roared in on Sunday, he said.

After years of drought and then civil war, Syria is expecting a bumper crop of wheat this year -- a large part of it in the northeast.

Fires have erupted in various parts of Syria in recent weeks, with all sides blaming each other for starting them.

In the Kurdish-run breadbasket province of Hasakeh, of which Al-Qahtaniya is part, IS has claimed several arson attacks on wheat fields.

But farmers have also blamed revenge attacks, low-quality fuel causing sparks, and even carelessness.

Both the Damascus government and the Kurdish authorities are competing to buy up the wheat produced this year in northeast Syria.

Analysts say wheat will be key to ensuring affordable bread and keeping the peace in various parts of Syria in the coming period.

The civil war has killed more than 370,000 people, made millions homeless, and devastated the country's economy since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.