Major New Fire Is Burning In Beirut’s Devastated Port

The blaze triggered panic among residents in the Lebanese capital still reeling from a massive explosion caused extreme damage to the port last month.

byThomas Newdick and Joseph Trevithick|
Middle East photo


A serious fire has been raging in Lebanon's Port of Beirut, which was decimated by a deadly explosion last month, for more than three hours now. Lebanese authorities said a warehouse full of tires and oil caught fire, producing a massive tower of thick black smoke, but say the risk of a new blast is low. There have still been reports of panic as residents sought cover fearing another major catastrophe. 

The Lebanese Army was among the first to issue a formal statement about the blaze on Sept. 10, 2020, and its causes. It added that helicopters were being brought in to assist firefighters on the ground. So far, there have been no reports of casualties.

However, videos and photos of the blaze had begun to emerge well before any official statements. With little official information about what was going on initially and no formal guidance about evacuating or otherwise keeping clear of the area, some of the clips showed some panicked residents leaving the city in their cars. 

There were other reports of people hiding under tables or in the center of their houses, as well as opening windows to reduce the chance of flying glass. The massive blast that devastated the port on Aug. 4 had shattered windows well away from ground zero, causing many injuries. That explosion killed at least 190 people, injured more than 6,500, and left thousands homeless. Lebanon is still very early in the process of recovering from that disaster.

"We opened all windows and are in the corridor right now," Dana Awad, a mother of two girls in a Beirut neighborhood told the Associated Press. "I am still feeling the earth shake. Living a flashback."

Officials eventually called on people to avoid roads leading to and from the port to allow quicker access for firefighters’ vehicles. In all, around 100 personnel are involved in the effort to bring the fire under control, including teams from the fire department, civil defense, and military. 

Today’s blaze is not the first to hit the port in recent days. A smaller fire on September 7 was quickly extinguished.

Michel el-Murr, head of a fire rescue team on site, told The Independent newspaper they believed this new fire was begun by workers using an electric saw to cut through metal debris in the port during the clean-up operation after this earlier disaster. Port director Bassem al-Qaisi later clarified to Voice of Lebanon radio that the fire started in a warehouse containing barrels of cooking oil before spreading to an area to store tires.

Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper reported that Beirut police spokesman Colonel Joseph Msalam said his officers had no information about what was happening at the port, with the army maintaining control over the facility. Admitting he did not know what caused the fire, Msalam added: “It could be containers. I really don’t know what is there.”

This all has shades of the events leading up to the August explosion, which Lebanese authorities said was the result of the detonation of around 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – widely used as an agricultural fertilizer – following another warehouse fire. The ammonium nitrate had been sitting in unsecured storage at the port for six years after being seized by customs officials.

In the days after that explosion, chemical experts assessing the damage identified more than 20 other containers filled with dangerous chemicals. These were then moved to safer locations away from the port. Earlier this month, however, the Lebanese Army said it had uncovered more than four more tons of ammonium nitrate stored in four separate containers near the port.

 “We still do not know exactly what is inside the warehouse which is on fire, we cannot rule out explosive materials — but we think it is unlikely,” el-Murr said. Hopefully, firefighters will be able to get this new fire under control quickly and without further incident.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

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