November 23, 2016 dawned bright and cold in the hills outside of Jerusalem, and an elderly guard outside of the village of Nataf wanted to make a cup of tea to warm himself in the early morning chill. He crouched down next to some stones in a Jewish National Fund Forest memorial to Polish Jewry, and made a small fire to boil a pot of water.
Almost any day of the year, errant burning embers or an improperly extinguished fire constitute a nuisance, but not a disaster, in the scrubby pine forests that cover the Jerusalem hills. The worst, usually, is a few open flames that quickly die out, according to Chanoch Zoref, the forest supervisor for Jewish National Fund/Keren Keyemet L’Yisrael’s in the Judean Hills region.
But on November 23, the small fire for a pot of tea got out of control, as did hundreds of fires across Israel in the same period, some set intentionally, according to suspicions, and unintentionally.
As the panicked guard called the authorities, flames raced down one side of the mountain to the wadi below and straight to the west, advancing 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) in the first hour.
“To go from a small fire to a big fire, a fire must have the perfect meteorological conditions,” Zoref explained, looking over a charred valley outside of Jerusalem.
As the country starts to recover from the wave of fires that burned more than 130,000 dunams (32,000 acres) of forests and open land in November, environmental experts from across the spectrum agree that the best way to rehabilitate the charred forests is simply to do nothing at all. And despite a massive, $6 million fundraising drive during the fires urging Diaspora Jews to “Rebuild. Replant. Restore,” the KKL/JNF is not rushing to sow saplings in the blackened soil.
“From an ecological standpoint, these fires do not qualify as a disaster,” Dr Ofri Gabay, an ecologist for the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, told the Times of Israel. “Nature can handle them on its own without any human intervention.”
Zoref said the obsession with planting trees harkens back to an outdated vision of “JNF Zionism” that is no longer relevant. Even before the current fire, out of the 200,000 dunams (50,000 acres) that JNF/KKL manages in the Jerusalem region, it has planted less than 50 dunams (12 acres) of trees in the past 10 years, on a very selective basis.
“KKL doesn’t really plant trees anymore,” said Zoref, who pointed out that it said the same thing in 2010 after the Carmel fire. “This is not new. People just don’t listen.”
Two days later, on November 25, a youth from an Arab village outside of Jerusalem threw a Molotov cocktail into the wadi directly parallel to where the guard’s bonfire raced out of control, next to the village of Nataf. “For 25, 30 years, they’ve been throwing Molotov cocktails in these wadis, and nothing ever happens,” said Zoref.
Again, flames raged through the wadi, propelled by dry 50 kph (30 mph) winds.
In November, in the midst of what the Water Authority called the driest November on record since they began tracking precipitation in the 1920s, Israel also experienced a solid week of very strong dry eastern winds. These uncharacteristically strong and dry winds are a climactic phenomenon that haven’t been recorded in the past century, said Zoref. He blames climate change.
There were 2,652 separate incidents of fire in open areas between November 19 to 28, 2016, compared to 721 incidents during the same period in 2015.
According to Israel Fire and Rescue spokesman Yoram Levy, there were 2,652 separate incidents of fires in open areas between November 19 and 28, which ranged from the major fires to reports of burning trash. During the same period in 2015, Fire and Rescue services responded to 721 incidents of fire in open areas.
Levy said there were 39 major fires which required more than 10 fire crews, which they are investigating. The fires were both due to suspected arson, like the Molotov cocktail, and pure negligence, like the guard’s bonfire.
Levy added the investigation is still ongoing, but they believe about 50 of the 2,652 fires started as a result of arson, especially the fires in the West Bank next to Jewish settlements, the areas just outside of the West Bank like the greater Jerusalem area, and the Galilee region. The most devastating fire, in Haifa, may not have been the result of arson.
Previously, police estimated that 29 of the 40 major fires may have been nationalistically motivated terror attacks.
Police spokeswoman Micky Rosenfeld said police arrested 49 people for suspected arson in connection with fires, and 10 have been charged. Police have not charged anyone for arson incitement on social media. Rosenfeld added the police investigation is still ongoing and there could be additional arrests in the coming weeks based on security camera footage of fire sites.
Facing the flames
In all, the fires destroyed approximately 500 homes and injured 133 people, one seriously, mostly in the hard-hit Haifa region. The fires burned as much as 130,000 dunams (32,000 acres) of natural forests and brush, about 30 percent more than the territory affected by the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. The greatest amount of damage occurred in the Haifa Region, the Judean Hills National Park, and the Kfir Nature Reserve.
In the Judean Hills National Park, the fire burned more than 50 percent of the 23,000 dunams (57,000 acres) of JNF/KKL conservation land. The flames surrounded Nataf, an idyllic village home to just 378 people (PDF), on three sides, threatening to engulf the entire village.
Wadis are steep valleys that wind their way through Jerusalem’s rocky hills. Fires love wadis because they are a straight shot, with no elevation to climb, and allow them to cover ground quickly.
In Nataf, the flames reached a height of 30 to 40 meters (100 to 130 feet) as they consumed the wadis. As he watched the flames race up the mountain on November 23, Zoref stood in the picnic area where the guard had tried to boil tea, his walkie-talkie crackling, trying to decide what to do. “I was really frightened, I was worried about my [employees],” he said two weeks later, eyeing the visible line on down the steep hill separating burned area from not burned area, where his workers made a human chain and trained their hoses on the blaze. “You have to be thinking all the time, what is the most efficient way to fight this fire, but not to risk my people? You’re always watching, trying to figure it out, thinking all the time about where to put people.”
Across Israel, approximately 2,000 firefighters battled the wildfires in November, many of them working in grueling 24-hour shifts alongside 450 soldiers from the Home Front Command and dozens of international fire fighters.
Outside Nataf, Zoref placed his KKL/JNF employees, who are trained to fight forest fighters, perpendicularly down the side of the wadi, starting from the peak of a local hill known as Wind Mountain.
“We fought the fire from the back, because it was moving so fast it was impossible to fight it from the front,” Zoref said. “We had to keep it from getting to Highway 1. We stopped the fire 100 meters (328 feet) from the fuel station at Shaar HaGay.”
According to Zoref, police detained the tea-making guard for two days, but determined it was an accident and released him without charge.
The Molotov cocktail fire came on a Friday evening two days later, towards the end of the wave of fires. This meant there were more resources on hand, though approaching nightfall rendered firefighting planes useless.
Fifty-seven fire trucks raced to Nataf, a small town with fewer than 100 houses. At times, the houses closest to the fires had seven fire trucks next to each one, trying to keep the flames at bay.
Though more than 13,000 dunams (3,200 acres) of conservation land burned in the area surrounding Nataf, inside the village, the fire destroyed only one house, and one restaurant, Rama’s Kitchen. Two other homes suffered damage.
“People were very efficient, they were working quickly, and no one was even scratched,” said Zoref.
The 2010 Carmel fire that killed 44 people is still Israel’s most deadly fire, but Zoref said the November wave of fires challenged firefighters in different ways. “This fire was much more dangerous from a professional firefighting point of view,” he said. “Here, we had much stronger winds than the Carmel fire.”
Two weeks after the last fires died out, and after the first major winter storm, new shoots of grass are beginning to poke their way out of the blackened earth, nature’s first step in the regeneration process.
Fires don’t burn uniformly, so some burned areas are charred and blackened to the ground, while others have just a slight black tinge to the earth. In one spot, chewing on carob pods from trees in the burn zone left a delicate smoky taste, but the pods themselves were unburned.
During the height of the fires, JNF sent pleading donation appeals, urging people to donate to their emergency fund to “Rebuild. Replant. Restore.”
American Jews answered the plea, with more than 10,000 donors contributing $6 million by the first week in December. Some $2 million came in online as small donations from individual donors, a quarter of whom were new to the JNF donor database, according to JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson.
Many environmental experts slammed the Jewish National Fund’s appeal, citing the danger of rushing to replant the recently burned earth. Donors in the US familiar with forest rehabilitation said they felt the campaign was a “blatant grab for money” if KKL/JNF doesn’t plan to “replant” as promised in the campaign’s title.
KKL/JNF said in response that the money will go to their long-term fire response plan. This includes purchasing new firetrucks which cost $125,000 each, up to 10 new fire stations which cost $1 million each, fire fighting gear such as binoculars, night vision goggles, and hoses, among other things.
David Brand, KKL/JNF’s head forester, said it is “critical” to immediately start assessing the damages, preparing for future wildfires, and deciding what, if any, replanting may take place. “Plantings will be done in those cases where natural regeneration does not provide the desired response according to the plan for the area,” he said.
In 2014, following studies of the Carmel fire, JNF/KKL released “Forest Management Policy of Israel,” new guidelines for forestry interventions and maintenance, which frowned upon the wanton tree planting that characterized the first half century of JNF/KKL’s work in Israel. “Forestry all over the world is understanding that maybe actively planting trees is not the best thing,” said Zoref. “Now we do a lot less. We’re not saying do nothing, it’s something in between.”
JNF/KKL is also looking how to prevent future forest fires, including experimenting with controlled burns, a tactic used widely in the western United States, but which Israel has not utilized. “It’s a dangerous, but effective tool,” said Zoref. Other tools for preventing forest fires include “thinning” pine forests by selectively cutting down trees, creating “fuel breaks” of treeless paths that give firefighters space to safely and effectively slow down a fire’s spread, or intensive livestock grazing to remove flammable undergrowth.
But for the blackened hills of Jerusalem, those plans are far in the future.
“For the first year, we do nothing,” Zoref explained. “Anything you do in the first year will just be more damaging, because all of the soil is very ripe to erosion.” Experts warn that people should not even walk in burned areas, as their footsteps can disturb the delicate new sprouts (all photos for this article were taken from marked roads).
But Zoref pointed out that fires, despite their destruction, are also an important biological tool that helps ecosystems “reset” themselves, giving plants that may have been crowded out a new chance at survival. This makes fires an important tool for both fighting future wildfires, as well as promoting biological diversity. However, there must be at least 30 to 40 years between the fires, otherwise the land doesn’t have a chance to rejuvenate itself. Some of the devastation in the Carmel area stems from the fact that there have been frequent fires occurring every five years, or even more often, in the same area.
After a fire, bulb flowers, such as narcissus and daffodils, will burst into blossoms, unencumbered by perennial plants that usually crowd them out. “The nicest blooms are in open fields after a fire,” said Zoref.
The survey and planning process, to determine what, if any, interventions will happen, won’t start for at least three years, to give the land a chance to heal itself, Zoref said.
“If we do plant trees, it will be on a very limited scales, and only after four or five years,” he said. “Mainly, we want to rely on the natural process. Why should we do anything if nature can do it herself?”