Minister floats radical plan to prevent fires amid climate change
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Minister floats radical plan to prevent fires amid climate change

Proposal by Ofir Akunis would see massive firefighting aircraft regularly dump water on high-risk areas

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The 747 Supertanker helps to extinguish a forest fire which broke out near Nataf, outside Jerusalem on November 26, 2016. (Israel Police)
The 747 Supertanker helps to extinguish a forest fire which broke out near Nataf, outside Jerusalem on November 26, 2016. (Israel Police)

Citing global warming, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis on Monday floated an unprecedented plan to use the massive US firefighting plane that assisted in battling last week’s devastating wave of brush fires to prevent future blazes.

Akunis told Israel Radio that he had instructed his staff to look into the possibility of using the supertanker Boeing 747-400, the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, to douse heavily wooded areas with water every fall to safeguard against fires stoked by the dry conditions.

“The supertanker could be used before the fires erupt,” he said. “All of that water should be dumped at the start of every November to get the ground wet as a preventive measure against these types of fires.”

Akunis’s mention of climate change as a cause of fires diverged from the comments of many other government officials, who have stressed the suspected human element in some of the fires and blamed Arab arsonists.

“Though I’m not a man who comes from a firefighting background, the supertanker played more than a small role in putting out fires in the Jerusalem Hills and the Nataf area,” Akunis said. “I won’t comment further on the operational side of it, because I’m not well versed in the subject, but it is worth exploring.”

But a veteran US firefighter told The Times of Israel that the idea would offer no protection against large-scale fires.

Minister Ofir Akunis on August 30, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister Ofir Akunis on August 30, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I cannot image that any amount of pre-soaking would make any kind of discernible difference in stopping a wall of flames like that,” the firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “In terms of prevention, clearing away excess brush from wooded areas and setting up wind corridors in high-risk areas to control the direction of a fire are typical measures that are taken. But I’ve never heard of using water like that. It would probably evaporate instantly, especially in a dry climate like Israel.

“Even pre-dousing a forest with fire retardants unnecessarily can be dangerous,” he added. “Because spraying heavy chemicals in the air is indiscriminate, it can damage crops and would be a health hazard for civilian populations nearby.”

The modified 747 arrived in Israel on Friday at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the week-long blazes an “extreme situation” that necessitated rental of the enormous plane.

Though the most severe blazes had already been put out by the time the supertanker went into action on Saturday, the aircraft assisted in firefighting efforts in the Jerusalem Hills where fires had been raging for five days. Still, opposition critics pointed out that, at a cost of many millions, the supertanker spent most of its time in Israel circling over the Mediterranean.

The supertanker is capable of dumping 76,000 liters (20,000 gallons) of water, foam or fire retardant for up to 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) and can be contracted from a Colorado Springs-based company, Global SuperTanker Services LLC, for a reported cost of $100,000-$200,000 per hour.

The aircraft was first brought to Israel to to fight the massive 2010 Carmel fire that destroyed large swaths of the forested ridge outside the city of Haifa and led to 44 deaths.

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