The first report of the fire came at 3:03 p.m. on August 15 in a phone call from a resident of Beit Meir, a small village nestled in the sprawling pine forests that carpet the hills west of Jerusalem.
There was smoke in the forest to the east, the report said.
Fire stations in nearby Mevasseret Zion and Beit Shemesh responded first. According to the Fire and Rescue Services, the first firefighter reached the blaze 20 minutes later, at 3:23.
It was a fast deployment given the tiny, winding forest roads that the bulky fire trucks had to take. But in that dry, windy August afternoon, it was far too late.
By the time the firefighters were on the scene, the blaze had had perhaps 35 minutes to burn — 35 minutes during which the flames, swept upward by the wind, no longer traveled along the ground. Israeli firefighters call it “treetop kindling,” the dangerous moment when flames in dry pine forests begin to spread faster along windswept treetops than in the brush below.
Pine trees are clever plants. Their pinecones are built to hop long distances in the crackling heat of a forest fire, allowing a pine-forest fire to leap the treeless fire barriers cut through the forest.
The sprawling forests of the Jerusalem Hills, said one fire official, were a “ticking time bomb,” especially in an era of global warming and in a country that faces the dual dangers of negligent campers and ideological arsonists.
It would take three days and the tireless efforts of 204 firefighting crews, 20 planes, IDF rescue teams and help from Palestinian firefighters to fully extinguish the blaze.
The disaster that might have been
The fire ended better than anyone, including fire officials, had expected. No one was killed. The final tally found 13,000 dunams (3,200 acres) burned, far less than the 20,000 dunams the fire department initially feared.
But it could have gone much worse, officials said. It nearly did.
Israel’s national Fire and Rescue Services were stretched to the limit. Pictures of exhausted firefighters asleep on a roadside after 36 hours of uninterrupted work were shared widely on social media. Cabinet ministers were phoning their counterparts in Cyprus, Greece and other countries looking for help as the fight dragged on.
Several towns and villages – Ksalon, Shoresh, Ramat Raziel, Givat Ye’arim, Ein Rafa, Shoeva, Beit Meir and others – were partly or wholly evacuated. Several saw homes and businesses go up in flames. Cops from Jerusalem were sent to roam the empty streets of towns endangered by the blaze to look for forgotten residents or lost pets as the flames neared. And as the fire pushed through the Sataf forest on Jerusalem’s southwestern edge, firetrucks were pulled from the fight and deployed in a perimeter around the massive Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, which lay squarely in the fire’s path and which, officials concluded, was nigh impossible to evacuate.
But perhaps the best example of the disaster that might have been is the story of the Eitanim psychiatric hospital nestled in the woods outside Givat Ye’arim. Eitanim was evacuated in time and escaped any serious damage from the encroaching flames, but only by a lucky accident. Eitanim’s story encapsulates the story of fires in Israel: a government that has failed for decades to invest attention and expertise in the growing problem of forest and brush fires, and in doing so placed countless towns and villages all over the country in danger.
Rebuilt from the ground up
Israel’s firefighters performed admirably last month. And well they should have. The country’s firefighting force has been rebuilt from the bottom up over the past 10 years, in the wake of the tragedy of the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.
Israel experiences a massive wildfire every few years, with especially large ones in 1989, 1995, 2010, 2016, 2019 and last month. Climate models show they’re getting more frequent and more fast-spreading, in part due to rising temperatures and a longer summer dry season. But no fire was more traumatic than the one that ignited on Mount Carmel in December 2010 and ultimately claimed the lives of 44 people, the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history up to that point (eclipsed since then by last April’s deadly crush during the Mount Meron pilgrimage).
Among the dead were thirty-seven Prisons Service officers whose bus was overtaken by the flames as they attempted to evacuate a prison in the fire’s path. Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer, the first female head of a major urban police department, was also killed trying to help coordinate the rescue.
The deaths brought new attention to an already widely recognized and longstanding problem: Israel’s fire services were a hodgepodge of 20 disconnected, poorly equipped and haphazardly trained regional fire departments that weren’t up to the challenge of a major fire.
After the 1989 and 1995 fires, the government went through a kind of ritual. It formed a commission of inquiry that produced a report detailing the dire shortages in the fire service’s manpower, equipment and training. It then ignored it.
It was only in May 2008, after years of delays and when it was clear the fires were a growing problem, that the cabinet managed to pass a decision approving a major reform of the fire services. Key to the reform was the unification of the scattered regional departments ostensibly overseen by the Interior Ministry into a single cohesive national force under the Public Security Ministry, which would be integrated closely with the national police.
The decision passed, but, maddeningly for those pushing for the reform, nothing happened. It took the 44 deaths on Mount Carmel two years later to get things into gear. A month after that fire, in January 2011, the cabinet issued another order that effectively mandated the actual implementation of the previous one. The order set a deadline at the end of 2012 for implementation. In August 2012, the Knesset passed the National Firefighting and Rescue Authority Law, officially establishing the national fire service mandated in the previous year’s cabinet decision. The new service formally began operations in February 2013.
The first challenge of the new force was the integration of the regional departments into a single hierarchy. It was no easy task. The gaps between the departments in basic firefighting doctrine, training and equipment were significant. As a June 2012 State Comptroller’s report noted, different departments even used different radio terminology while battling the Carmel fire, making it difficult for them to notify fellow firefighters where the fire was moving.
But unifying and standardizing the departments wasn’t enough. According to a Technion-Israel Institute of Technology study of the fire service commissioned in 2012 by the Public Security Ministry, Israel’s firefighting services were woefully underfunded and understaffed.
The new service embarked in 2013 on a massive years-long expansion in manpower and capabilities. At its founding in 2013, the fire service inherited the 2,433 employees of the regional departments, including firefighters and logistical personnel. By 2019, that figure had grown to 3,690. Some 350 new firetrucks were added to the force between 2011 and 2020, an investment of hundreds of millions of shekels that expanded on and in many cases replaced the aging fleet of trucks with new vehicles, including off-road and other specialty trucks. Forty-nine of those new trucks, dubbed Alon (Oak) by the fire service, were specifically outfitted for battling forest fires.
Officials say the new force’s unified hierarchy, modeled on the national police, has dramatically improved response times and made all the difference in recent years in preventing a recurrence of the Carmel disaster. In October 2020, a major blaze broke out near the northern city of Nof Hagalil. Dozens of crews from neighboring towns and districts were deployed almost immediately by a single national control center in a way no fire chief a decade earlier could have dreamed of doing. And in the Jerusalem Hills last month, the fire service proved it could do the same on a scale many times larger. Over 200 crews and thousands of firefighters and support personnel were in the hills battling the blaze within hours of the call from Beit Meir, all closely coordinated and carefully tracked in real time.
Over a dozen specially outfitted firefighting planes were also deployed to battle the Jerusalem blaze. They are the service’s Elad air squadron, named for Elad Riban, one of the firefighters who perished in the Carmel fire. The squadron was another key lesson from the Carmel experience, when Israel had to call on other countries’ airborne firefighting forces to help contain the blaze.
According to fire service numbers, the squadron’s planes were deployed to 200 separate fires in 2020 alone, logging 1,900 flight hours and dropping 1.5 million liters of fire retardant. On especially hot and dry days, the squadron carries out patrol flights over areas prone to brushfires, hoping to catch fires while they’re still small.
In 2020, the reliance on air power grew to include a drone unit that has deployed to large fires to help forces on the ground track the spreading flames. Lacking funds for its own helicopter force, the fire service has teamed up with the Israel Police to outfit police helicopters with enormous buckets able to drop 680 liters of water at a time on a fire.
The expansion of the force has also included new investments in professionalizing its training arm. Last year, the service established the National Fire and Safety College and a special R&D unit. Plans are underway to develop automated early detection systems based on drones and other technologies.
All told, it’s an impressive new service.
Yet the takeaway from last month’s fire, at least for the firefighters themselves, wasn’t their improved capabilities. Even with their new training and equipment, the firefighters said, disaster was only barely averted.
‘Everyone knows what needs to happen’
Building fires in Israel are relatively rare and rarely deadly. Wood is an expensive resource, so buildings are constructed from stone, cement and glass. But forest fires are common, and large ones can be costly.
The Carmel fire came in early December after an unusually long dry season that year. The combination of widespread vegetation and extended dry seasons is a characteristic feature of Israel’s climate. Israel is also a small and relatively crowded country, its national parks and cultivated forests not large enough to allow for more than a few short kilometers between towns and villages. To a firefighter, that all amounts to the worst possible combination: hundreds of residential areas large and small strewn across a landscape carpeted with kindling.
Government reports produced after previous major fires all made the same basic point: It’s not enough to expand the fire service. The dense forests must be thinned out, firebreaks must be cut through the trees and undergrowth, especially around towns and along roads, and forests must be diversified beyond the traditional fast-growing, fast-burning Aleppo pines.
“Everyone knows what needs to happen,” a frustrated Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, told The Times of Israel last week. “But only after 2010, because so many were killed, did anyone start implementing.”
The problem boils down to management. Israeli forests are not managed by any single agency or supervising body. Some forests are owned and cultivated by KKL-JNF, others by the Nature and Parks Authority, and still others by local municipalities. Budgets for prevention measures are concentrated in the KKL and NPA forests, while municipalities often lack the funds and expertise to do their part. Alas, wildfires are unaware of these demarcations as they leap from tree to tree, and poorer conditions in one part of a forest can help a fire overwhelm containment measures taken by a more responsible steward in another.
A 2017 government report – it’s a recurring refrain, the plethora of unread and unimplemented government reports on the issue – recommended establishing a single supervisory body to oversee a coordinated nationwide effort to implement prevention measures in all Israel’s forests, irrespective of who owns or manages them.
As NPA’s Shkedy explained, that scattershot prevention policy could have turned the Eitanim hospital into a tragedy larger than the Carmel fire, had it not been for the foresight of the hospital’s director, Dr. Gadi Lubin. Lubin was concerned about the trees’ proximity to his hospital’s perimeter wall, so he recently approached NPA and KKL officials at his own initiative to ask them to clear a firebreak around the complex.
Pine-forest fires will eventually leap across such barriers, but not as quickly as tree-to-tree travel. Last month, as the fire drew closer to Eitanim, that open area held off the flames for hours, giving rescuers time to evacuate the premises. Firefighters were even able to douse the flames before they could leap the barrier, sparing the facility any property damage.
It’s a cautionary tale Shkedy tells anyone who will listen. Eitanim was likely saved from catastrophe not only by the firefighters, but by the initiative of the psychiatrist who runs the facility. When fire safety must depend on an unusually attentive psychiatrist to prevent disaster, Shkedy argues, that’s a failure of policy.
Similar stories were told throughout the Jerusalem Hills last month. One fire service official who spoke with The Times of Israel recalled visiting Givat Ye’arim, “where a woman took us to see her burned-out home. We stood at the window and saw how the trees were planted right up to her home. People want to feel that they live in the woods, but that’s exactly how the fire reached the house.”
Firefighters are the first to note that by the time they’re called in, the battle is already partly lost. The lives and property of residents, countless animals and vast areas of shrubland and forest are by then already succumbing to the flames.
The past two years have seen a great deal of staff work done on a comprehensive nationwide wildfire prevention plan, with a clear division of responsibility, firebreak maintenance regulations and so on. Plans were drawn up in a cross-agency effort led by the National Security Council and a price tag for implementation was calculated: roughly NIS 40 million per year for five years, or NIS 200 million all told. A small annual budget would then be required for upkeep.
It’s pennies on the dollar, officials say. Fire service figures say fires, even with the efforts of the fire service, still cause some NIS 3 billion in damages each year. It’s a figure that makes the new, more expensive national fire service a good investment. Prevention is cheaper still.
There’s nothing new in this insight. The US has been focused on prevention for the better part of five decades, with public information campaigns involving cartoon bears, improvements in building codes, fire education and drills in schools and large buildings throughout the country, and sternly enforced requirements for fire safety measures in all public places, including accessible street hydrants and extinguishers.
Those decades-long efforts worked beautifully. According to National Fire Protection Association figures, over the 38 years from 1977 to 2015, US civilian fire deaths fell by more than half, from some 7,400 per year to 3,300 – even as the American population grew by 100 million more people. The decline wasn’t caused by better firefighting; the average death toll of a deadly fire remained relatively steady across those decades. There were simply fewer fires. The number of reports of building fires declined 54% over the period. In 1977, there were 15 fire reports for every 1,000 Americans; in 2015, there were four. Prevention efforts have been so successful that fires are now responsible for only a small percentage of calls to US fire departments — roughly 4% in 2015. Medical rescue or “mutual aid” requests are now the largest category at a combined 68%.
Those kinds of figures, replicated throughout the West, in urban settings and in the wild – the number of reported wildfires has also declined – drive home the point: Prevention is much, much cheaper than firefighting. It’s also more effective.
Glimmers of change
Disaster was averted in the Jerusalem Hills by a combination of Israeli firefighters’ impressive new capabilities and a heavy dose of dumb luck. At Eitanim, at Givat Ye’arim and elsewhere, things could have turned out much worse. Though the latest fire claimed no human lives, it reminded Israeli leaders of the danger and set some long-stalled wheels in motion.
On August 16, the second day of the fire, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev raised the issue of the first NIS 40 million to jumpstart implementation of the nationwide firebreak plan with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“The firebreak issue was held up until today because of a lack of budgets and the low priority assigned to the issue,” his office said bluntly in a statement, acknowledging the failure of past governments as Jerusalem’s western horizon pumped thick clouds of smoke over the capital.
In early September, the cabinet formally approved a broader NIS 65 million plan to rehabilitate the ravaged area that included, alongside the cleanup of the remains of toxic asbestos warehouse roofing and funding for tracking populations of protected species like fallow deer and gazelles that saw many of their members die in the flames, funding for a comprehensive fire prevention plan for the Jerusalem Hills region.
In a statement about the new funding, the Environmental Protection Ministry noted last week that the future is expected to bring “rising temperatures, declining rainfall, and an increase in the rate and intensity of extreme events such as heatwaves and fires.”
A serious and comprehensive prevention policy is no mere cost-saving measure. It’s increasingly a question of life and death.