by Rouba Kabbara, BEIRUT (AFP) – Fires raged on Wednesday for the second time this month across hectares (acres) of forest in Lebanon, threatening the natural wealth of a country once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East. Emergency crews backed by army helicopters struggled to extinguish blazes which broke out on Tuesday in the mountainous northern regions of Qobayat, Ayto and Karm Saddeh, a civil defence official told AFP.

But police and civil defence authorities had no reports of casualties."The fires have been raging in all three regions since yesterday," the official added."Civil defence workers and army helicopters have been struggling to put them out, especially the one in Ayto because there are no roads leading to the area," he said.Fires also spread across forests of pine and oak trees as well as valleys and woods around Bisri, Sfaray and Mashmusheh in southern Lebanon, another civil defence official added. The fires are still raging and we are trying to prevent them from reaching homes," he said.

Defence officials said nearby Cyprus was due to send helicopters to help the Lebanese firefighters battle the blazes.

Earlier this month, more than 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of woodland were destroyed in fires that swept through several regions of Lebanon, leaving one woman dead and dozens injured.

Experts have warned that seasonal forest fires in Lebanon are further threatening to destroy the country’s natural wealth — among the richest in the Middle East.

"The consequences of forest fires are disastrous on the natural environment and ecological systems, not to mention the population, by worsening poverty and lowering the quality of life," said a report by the Association for Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC).

Lebanon is known as a tourist destination for its scenic green mountains that offer cool summer vacations, mainly for wealthy Gulf Arabs escaping the heat in their desert countries.

The country’s natural wealth, including its large water resources, have traditionally been a main source of income for residents of tourist regions and local farmers.

Zeina Tamim, an official at the agriculture ministry, told AFP that forest fires were slowly destroying green zones which account for 23 percent of the country’s territory, including 13.5 percent of forests.

"The fire claimed approximately 0.25 percent of Lebanese territory (earlier this month). It is estimated that at least 2,500 hectares of forest were burned, which equal five times the total reforested area during the past 17 years," said the AFDC report.

"As a result of these fires, the forest cover has been burnt down to 11 percent. Replanting the 2,500 hectares would cost 10 million dollars," said the report based on a study funded by the European Union.

The ADFC report said forest fires in Lebanon are mainly caused by climatic conditions: prolongued hot summers, lack of water and violent winds.

"Also, the general public through their lifestyle or livelihood activities is an important initiator of forest fires," mainly due to the clearing of agricultural fields using fire, it said.

Many parts of the torched forests are lost without any possibility of natural regeneration, as pine forests that are damaged by fire twice within a period of 10 years can not produce any more cones.

"Lebanon’s green areas are a wealth that is threatened with extinction if there is no quick salvation plan that includes the reforestation of the burnt-out areas," an environment ministry official warned.

"The erosion of green areas has dangerous consequences: the destruction of floristic species diversity, soil erosion, the decrease in underground waters and desertification," the official who did not wish to be identified told AFP.

The AFDC report said "Lebanon’s forests have undergone continuous degradation, which has intensified in recent years."

"Between 1990 and 1995, more than 30 percent of Lebanese forests were deforested or burned, leading to fragmentation and loss of the fundamental nature of these forest ecosystems," it said.