Wildfires fanned by blistering temperatures and tinder-dry conditions kill at least 42 people in Algeria, authorities say, adding fires had criminal origins.

People attempt to put out a fire in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou province, east of Algiers, Algeria on August 10, 2021.
People attempt to put out a fire in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou province, east of Algiers, Algeria on August 10, 2021. (Reuters)

Algeria’s government has said arsonists were responsible for dozens of forest fires that have killed 42 people, including 25 soldiers deployed to help put out the flames, and destroyed homes east of the capital.

Plumes of smoke rose from pockets of fire in the forest in Tizi Ouzou region on Tuesday, while residents used tree branches and hurled water from plastic containers in an attempt to put out the flames however they could.

Several houses were burnt and families were escaping to hotels, youth hostels and university residences, witnesses said, as dense smoke hampered the visibility of fire crews.

READ MORE: Raging wildfires in Algeria claims lives

"We had a horror night. My house is completely burnt," said Mohamed Kaci, who had fled with his family from the village of Azazga to a hotel.

Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud said an investigation would be launched to identify those behind the blazes. "Only criminal hands can be behind the simultaneous outbreak of about 50 fires across several localities of the province," he said.

Speaking on state television on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Ayman Benabderrahmane said the death toll had risen to 42, including 25 members of the military. The government was in "advanced talks with (foreign) partners to hire planes and help speed up the process of extinguishing fires", he added.

Firefighters and the army were still trying to contain the blazes, and Beldjoud said the priority was to avoid more victims. He vowed to compensate those affected.

Smaller fires have ravaged forests in at least 16 provinces of the North African country since Monday night. 

Soldiers 'saved 110 people from flames'

Algeria joins a string of countries to be hit by major blazes in recent weeks, including Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the western United States.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tweeted his condolences for 25 soldiers killed as they worked to rescue people in the areas of Bejaiea and Tizi Ouzou, the epicentre of the blazes.

"It is with great sadness that I have learned of the martyrdom of 25 soldiers after they were successful in rescuing around 100 citizens from the flames in the mountains of Bejaiea and Tizi Ouzou," the president said.

The Defence Ministry said the actions of the soldiers had "saved 110 people from the flames".

At least another 14 soldiers were injured to varying degrees.

Seventeen civilians died in the Tizi Ouzou and Setif area, Prime Minister Benabderrahmane said late on Tuesday.

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Scenes compared to bombings by France

A 92-year-old woman living in the Kabyle mountain village of Ait Saada said the scene on Monday night looked like "the end of the world."

"We were afraid," Fatima Aoudia told The Associated Press. "The entire hill was transformed into a giant blaze." 

Aoudia compared the scene to bombings by French troops during Algeria's brutal independence war, which ended in 1962.

"These burned down forests. It's a part of me that is gone," Aoudia said. "It's a drama for humanity, for nature. It's a disaster"

Climate scientists say there is little doubt climate crisis from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events,  such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. A worsening drought and heat, both linked to climate crisis, are driving wildfires in the US West and Russia's northern region of Siberia.

READ MORE: France alarmed by radiation, a colonial legacy still lingering in Algeria

Source: Reuters