Israel suffered a major wake up call on December 2, 2010. The deadliest fire in Israel’s history broke out on the Carmel Mountain Range near Haifa. For more than 82 hours, the blaze spread rapidly across northern Israel – fanned by strong winds and dry conditions – killing 44 people, forcing the evacuation of 17,000 residents from dozens of towns and destroying or severely damaging 250 homes.
It was a wake up call, because Israel was not prepared for such a disaster. As related at the Jewish National Fund (JNF) donation raising breakfast at Temple Bat Yahm last month, Chezi Levi, spokesman and chief training officer for the Haifa Fire Department, said, “We had never seen such a fire. It spread in 15 minutes. A truck came from Afula, Emek 9, with three firefighters (who were killed). It was from 1982, more than 30 years old! That truck stopped behind me at a traffic light, lights flashing, and then could not start up again. Israel had only 1,500 fire fighters per 10,000 citizens. In the time of Sharon, we had just16 fire trucks.”
“As we tried to figure out where the fire was going to spread,” he continued, “we had to try to save lives: residents, farmers, Palestinians, Palestinian prisoners. There was no discrimination. We tried to control the fire, but it was too intense. Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Turkey and Canada sent fire extinguishing airplanes.”
It was a galvanizing event. Help came from around the world. In addition to the aircrafts, firefighting trucks, fire experts and firefighters were sent from Azerbaijan, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian National Authority, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the US.
Among the many settlements heavily damaged include Kibbutz Beyt Oren, the artists’ village of Eyn Hod and the youth village of Yemin Orde.
Volunteers rushed to help. One, 16-year-old Elad Riven, called his mother to bring him clothes. When she hurriedly arrived at the staging area, absolutely distraught, there was no sign of him. Elad perished fighting the fire along with Haifa’s chief of police, 39 wardens, two policemen and the husband of a pregnant woman whose due date was one week after the fire. During the fire, the population brought food.
“But what we need,” he continued, “is to be more prepared to extinguish fires. We need aerial planes. Homes are built right up to the forest. But, more important, we need to know how to prevent such disasters.”
The wildfire burned approximately five million trees across 12,500 acres of natural woodlands and planted forests, an area comparable to 7,142 football fields. Though the original fire was found not to be arson (two young boys had been smoking in the forest), it was compounded by winds and the major distraction of 80 arson fires set during the fight.
A large portion of the Carmel Forest had been hand-planted by Israel’s early pioneers through donations collected in JNF Blue Boxes around the world. Some of the trees that burned were between 50 and 100 years old.
For generations, JNF foresters have been maintaining and protecting 20,000 acres of the forest. One hundred twenty of these foresters, familiar with every trail and road, fought the Carmel blaze alongside the fire department. Now they have begun the long, arduous rehabilitation process, which will take decades to complete.
Drawing upon lessons learned after the Second Lebanon War, JNF will rely heavily on natural regeneration, an extremely labor-intensive and costly process. Regenerating trees grow very densely, requiring foresters to monitor each square foot of the forest and perform frequent thinning operations to ensure tree health and create a space suitable for recreation. In some regions new trees will be planted, all natural species, so the public will once again be able to enjoy the forest without having to wait 50 years for natural regrowth. Each year hundreds of thousands of visitors hike and visit its recreation areas, many of which were severely damaged.
The renewal process will also include clearing debris and restoring infrastructure, preventing soil erosion, and, most importantly, preventing the spread of future fires by creating firebreaks, thinning woodlands and removing burnt vegetation. In addition, JNF will fund beautification projects at the Yemin Orde Youth Village, as well as towns and kibbutzim that were severely damaged.
Israel desperately needs support. The government has agreed to match 50 percent of recovery costs to all monies donated. According to Levi, the country needs 140 new state-of-the-art forest fire trucks, fire stations, rescue equipment, fire fighting motorcycles and clothes. Levi described the present clothes as too heavy in which to run. “We have had no proper clothing,” he stated. “What is needed is lighter, fire resistant suits with a humidity barrier,” each of which is $2,000.
As the U.S. fund raising arm of Friends of Israel Firefighters (FIF), JNF is dedicated to supporting Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services. To date, JNF donations have purchased more that 50 fire trucks for communities throughout Israel.
Jewish National Fund’s campaign, “Operation Carmel Renewal: From Black to Green,” is raising emergency funds to repair the vast ecological damage caused by the fires, replace depleted firefighting supplies and provide firefighters with much-needed equipment to battle future fires.
To support Israel’s firefighters, donations may be made at jnf.org/carmelrenewal or call (888) JNF-0099.