Ahead of heat wave, Israelis urged to hold their fire on Lag B’Omer
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Ahead of heat wave, Israelis urged to hold their fire on Lag B’Omer

Fearful of forest fires, authorities issue restrictions on bonfires during this week’s holiday

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather around the bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, outside of Tel Aviv, on May 17, 2014. (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather around the bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, outside of Tel Aviv, on May 17, 2014. (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Fire and Rescue Service has announced strict restrictions on bonfires this Wednesday night, the eve of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, due to a severe heat wave expected to hit the country ahead of the weekend.

The bonfire restrictions, in effect from Wednesday at 8 a.m. until Friday at 8 p.m., require that bonfires be lit only in specific spots approved by local authorities and the Fire and Rescue Services. Fires cannot be lit in any forests, even in places that have designated barbecue spots. They must also be at least eight meters (26 feet) apart from one another and their base cannot exceed three meters (10 feet).

Fires must be lit in pits, at least 500 meters from a wooded area, 60 meters away from natural gas or fuel storage points, and 20 meters from telephone or electricity lines. Areas in the Negev Desert (south of Route 25) are exempt from the restrictions. Last year, amid a similar heatwave, the Fire and Rescue Services put down even more stringent fire restrictions.

Children who have spent months piling wood pallets into precarious structures to light on fire will also be disappointed, as the fire regulations require that combustible materials be stacked no higher than 1.5 meters (5 feet). There will be special regulations at Mount Meron, where tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox celebrants congregate at the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to mark the holiday.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children climb up a bonfire to be lit in the evening to mark Lag B’Omer in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on May 2, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

The heat wave is expected to begin on Wednesday with higher-than-normal temperatures, and continue through Friday evening. On Thursday, temperatures across Israel will be 38-42 degrees Celsius (100 to 108 Fahrenheit). The hottest part of the heat wave will be on Friday, with temperatures reaching up to 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) in the Jordan Valley and the Arava, and up to 42 degrees (108 Fahrenheit) along the coast.

The Nature and Parks Authority has issued a heat warning, discouraging people from hiking from Wednesday to Friday. Lighting any kind of fire in national parks, including in areas that are marked for barbecues, is also forbidden on those days.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is pushing “bonfire alternatives” this year, including hikes by candlelight. If someone really wants to light a bonfire, the environmental organization suggests combining forces with neighbors or other groups, so there is a single bonfire for a large group of people, rather than multiple bonfires.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion echoed this call, encouraging Jerusalemites to join together at schools and youth movement centers for joint fires, and to take special care to keep fires are far enough away from shrubs or trees.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews play near a bonfire during Lag B’Omer celebrations in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on May 2, 2018. (Dario Sanchez/Flash90)

“Lag B’Omer is a very happy holiday, but requires extra attention to overall safety and extinguishing fires,” Lion said in a statement. He added that there will be roving officials from the Jerusalem municipality to ensure that all fires are held in approves places and do not exceed the maximum size.

The Fire and Rescue Services will also be patrolling cities and towns across the country to ensure people are adhering to the bonfire restrictions.

Lag B’Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that marks the 33rd day of the Omer, a 49-day mourning period between Passover and Shavuot. During this time, observant Jews do not celebrate weddings or cut their hair. The 33rd day of this period, called Lag B’Omer because the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel have the combined numerical value of 33, is marked with celebrations, big bonfires, and haircuts.

Bar Yochai, a 2nd century disciple of the sage Rabbi Akiva, was revered for his teachings on Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Lag B’Omer commemorates Bar Yochai’s death and the revelation of the Zohar, the foundational Jewish mystical text. The bonfires are meant to symbolize the light of those teachings.

Lag B’Omer celebrations on Mt. Meron in 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Air quality often takes a nosedive during Lag B’Omer, when thousands of bonfires are lit across the country. Last year, during which hot weather forced similar bonfire restrictions, pollution was about seven times worse than on a clear day, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

In 2017, when there were no bonfire restrictions, air quality was almost 11 times worse than on a clear day.

The most polluted area during Lag B’Omer in 2018 was southern Tel Aviv, which measured a concentration of respiratory particles of 402 parts per million (about seven times more polluted than on a clear day), compared with 104 ppm in Beit Shemesh and 136 ppm in Jerusalem (both about twice as polluted as a clear day).

Ultra-Orthodox men set light to a massive bonfire during celebrations of the holiday of Lag B’Omer in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 27, 2013. ( Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2016, bonfires from Lag B’Omer caused scores of forest fires, especially around the Jerusalem area, forcing some residents to evacuate their homes. One enormous fire, fanned by high winds, swept toward the area near the Ramot and Romema neighborhoods and the adjacent town of Mevasseret Zion, west of the city. Other blazes raged in the Gilo neighborhood in the city’s southeast and near the town of Abu Ghosh.

Last year, amid similar weather conditions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Israelis to stay at home and have a vegetarian barbecue instead.

“Don’t light bonfires. There will be other opportunities,” he tweeted. “But if you have to, then, maximum, make a barbecue at home. It can even be vegetarian.”

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