Amid ‘extreme’ heat wave, officials close parks, restrict holiday bonfires

Temperatures to reach highs above 100° Fahrenheit by Friday, sparking fears of runaway blazes from Lag B’Omer fires

Nahal Prat (Wadi Kelt), a nature reserve and park in the Judean desert, Israel (Public domain/Wikipedia)
Nahal Prat (Wadi Kelt), a nature reserve and park in the Judean desert, Israel (Public domain/Wikipedia)

Police and firefighting officials are preparing for an “extreme” heat wave starting Wednesday and continuing into the weekend, shuttering popular hiking areas and limiting permits for the traditional bonfires that accompany the Lag B’Omer holiday that begins Wednesday night.

The Darga, Qumran, Og and Prat national parks, each containing an eponymous riverbed that feeds into the Jordan Valley, are closed to visitors from Wednesday through Friday.

The Nature and Parks Authority also announced that Carmel National Park and its nearby hiking trails would be closed.

Officials reiterated that there was a blanket ban on unapproved fires in all public areas for the duration of the heat wave.

Residents near a big bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer in Jerusalem on May 6, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Fire and Rescue Service also released detailed instructions for local governments on managing bonfires, including the stipulation that they must be placed 60 meters (200 feet) or further from forest or brush, and that the pile of combustible material not reach more than 150 centimeters (5 feet) high.

Temperatures are expected to reach their peak on Friday, which will see highs in various parts of the country ranging from 38 to 46 degrees Celsius, or 100° to 115° Fahrenheit.

The extreme conditions fall on the Lag B’Omer holiday starting Wednesday evening, which is characterized by the lighting of bonfires.

Deputy Commissioner Nizar Fares, head of the Fire and Rescue Service’s northern district, signed a special waiver of the bonfire restrictions to allow the traditional commemoration festivities for the second-century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai to take place at the sage’s tomb on Mount Meron in northern Israel.

Children build a big bonfire for the Lag B’Omer festival, in Safed, northern Israel, April 30, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Bar Yohai is closely associated with the later Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah and with the Lag B’Omer holiday.

The events at his tomb draw hundreds of thousands of participants and pilgrims each year. A central bonfire is lit on the tomb’s roof.

Firefighters and police are deploying in massive numbers at the site to help prevent the start of uncontrolled fires.

Efforts to prevent runaway brushfires were underway throughout the country. In Jerusalem, municipal trucks roamed the city on Wednesday morning, locating and removing pre-placed woodpiles in areas deemed too close to dry forests or brush. In Tel Aviv, City Hall announced a blanket ban on bonfires within municipal limits.

Israel’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, said in a joint statement Tuesday that “the laws of the holy Torah require that we obey the instructions of the rescue services and avoid setting bonfires in areas deemed dangerous… especially this year, given the temperatures predicted in the weather forecasts.”

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