Satellite imagery has revealed the full extent of the devastation following a massive fire that incinerated hundreds of tanker trucks in Afghanistan. The incident occurred at a border crossing point between that country and neighboring Iran this past weekend. Authorities say that the blaze, which also injured at least 20 people, was triggered by the explosion of one tanker that set off a chain reaction, but what caused the initial detonation remains under investigation.
The incident occurred at a holding area within the larger customs terminal at Islam Qala in western Afghanistan's Herat province on Feb. 13, 2021. The satellite images below, which The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs, show the site as it was on Feb. 16.
Investigators only began examining the site to try to figure out what had happened three days later, according to the Associated Press. Unconfirmed reports from immediately after the fire said that at least 500 oil and natural gas tanker trucks had burned in the conflagration. The satellite imagery makes clear that the number of destroyed trucks is in the hundreds. A total of 2,500 trucks had been in the holding area, which was only built to hold 700 large vehicles, when the blaze started.
Islam Qala is a major crossing point between Afghanistan and Iran and is situated some 75 miles west of the provincial capital, which is also named Herat. As a result, the truck holding area is often packed over its stated capacity.
However, Younus Qazizada, the President of the Herat Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press that even more trucks had been parked there than usual when the fire started due to a dispute between truckers and Afghan authorities over increased customs duties. Starting two weeks ago, truck drivers began refusing to pay and could not enter the country.
Limited firefighting resources at the site left the fire raging for days. It also prompted authorities to shut down nearby powerlines that bring electricity in from Iran, as a precaution, leaving the city of Herat without power for hours at least after the blaze began, according to The New York Times.
There nothing to suggest one way or another yet whether the initial explosion was the result of an attack of some kind. Neither the Taliban, which has a significant presence in Herat province, nor the Afghan government has indicated, at least so far, that this incident was anything more than a horrible accident.
Regardless, it could still have significant ramifications. Iran is Afghanistan's largest trading partner and the government in Kabul has secured a special waiver from the United States to import Iranian oil and gas, despite sanctions on the regime in Tehran. As already noted, Islam Qala is a major conduit between the two countries for tanker trucks carrying those fuels, as well as other goods. It's very possible that the fire could further hamper routine operations at Islam Qala, in addition to the ongoing dispute over customs duties.
With the fire now out and investigators picking over the scene, there may be information sooner rather than later as to exactly what happened. How long it will take now to clear the burned-out trucks and any other debris remains to be seen.
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