Carmel fire a cruel lesson in how not to prepare for and control a national emergency, says report

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss excoriates several ministers and finds the police and fire services severely lacking in their ability to address a wide-scale disaster

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

The Carmel fire raging through the forest on December 2, 2010. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90)
The Carmel fire raging through the forest on December 2, 2010. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90)

A thorough and excoriating report released Wednesday by the state comptroller on the Carmel fire of 2010 found across-the-board failures in Israel’s handling of the blaze, which raged for 77 hours and claimed 44 lives.

In a 500-page report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss found fault with the police, the Israel Prison Service, the Israeli Fire and Rescue Service and, most vociferously, with the ministers of interior and finance.  The two officials, Eli Yishai and Yuval Steinitz, bickered over funding for years, he wrote, creating a situation in which Israel possessed only 20 tons of fire suppressant material — some 90 percent less than the emergency minimum — on the eve of the fire in December 2010.

“The failures of the Finance Ministry and the Interior Ministry and their inadequacies are significant, fundamental and severe,” Lindenstrauss wrote.

The blaze, which broke out on December 2, 2010, near the Druze town of Usfiyye, was stoked by hot easterly winds. Within two hours it had turned into a wave of fire 35 yards high, burning through the Carmel Forest, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents of the area and killing 44 Israelis, most of them passengers on an Israel Prison Service bus that was snaking its way up a narrow and steep road to the nearby Damon Prison.

The comptroller, whose term is up in several weeks and who has been a consistent castigator of the current government and prime minister, used the word “accountability” in English, as it lacks an accepted Hebrew equivalent. In “modern Western countries,” he wrote, ministerial accountability often entails resignation — an option, he wrote, that “in our region remains academic [and] theoretical.”

In this instance, while not calling outright for the ministers to resign their posts, he stated that their responsibility was such that “it would be fitting to point it out in concrete and practical terms.”

The attorney general, he added, was welcome to examine the report and provide his opinion on the “normative, legal and personal aspects” of his findings.

Lindenstrauss did not single out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for particularly harsh criticism, but noted that the prime minister did bear overall responsibility for the shortcomings, was aware of them long before the fire, and failed to act to correct them.

The prime minister thanked the state comptroller for his work and said he would continue to act in order to make the necessary changes.

The report examines the state of readiness before the fire and the performance of those fighting the lethal flames.

On December 30, 2009, roughly one year before the fire broke out high on the 15-mile-long wooded ridge of Mount Carmel, the chairman of the firefighters’ union warned of imminent disaster. “The situation today is one of collapse. A firefighter in the field is now asked to decide who will live and who will die,” he said in a meeting with Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Netanyahu.

The Israel Fire and Rescue Service suffered from two problems: an acute lack of funding and poor structural organization. After the Second Lebanon War, and a comptroller’s report criticizing Israel’s ability to fight large-scale fires, Yishai requested 100 million shekels for immediate use within the Israel Fire and Rescue Service. The gear was ancient; the force drastically understaffed and missing hundreds of fire trucks.

The Finance Ministry refused to allocate the funds without evidence of comprehensive organizational reform — namely, the restructuring of the fire service from a string of municipal units to a national force under the Ministry of Internal Security.

Both ministers adopted “extreme approaches,” Lindenstrauss wrote, clinging to “an all-or-nothing policy” despite the obvious dangers to Israel’s citizens. Steinitz refused to provide any additional funds and Yishai refused to pay for the bare essentials with the Interior Ministry’s considerable budget.

The morning of the fire exposed deficiencies in the police, the fire service and the prison service’s abilities to handle a large-scale coordinated rescue effort during natural or security-related disasters.

The comptroller pointed to the police and fire services’ poor ability to control and command their forces on the ground, to a lack of coordination, an inability to plan for the future on the state level among the localized fired departments and a slew of other problems.

None, however, brought the problems into starker focus than the decision, at three in the afternoon on the day the fire started, to allow a bus full of IPS officer cadets to head up Route 721 in an easterly direction towards Damon Prison and the inmates there who were awaiting evacuation. The two helicopters in use were both on the ground at the time. The commanders did not use the aerial images available to them. The fire service officers and the police issued differing orders about the risk of the fire and the best way to approach the prison and though police officers had closed the road, they allowed the bus to pass through two separate roadblocks and into the cauldron of fire.

One of the dead, Brigadier General Ahuva Tomer, the commander of the Haifa police department, made her way down the road toward the bus. Fire licked at the edge of the ashphalt but had yet to leap across the road. Tomer instructed David Navon, the driver, to turn around and head back down the mountain toward the coastal road. He did, but within moments the bus encountered a wall of fire coming up at them and could do nothing but reverse up the painfully steep road until the fire approached from the rear. All but three of the people on the bus, along with three police officers, two firefighters and one adolescent fire scout, were trapped and killed.

“The government must take into consideration that the Carmel disaster is but a parable” for other large-scale disasters that could be visited on Israel, Lindenstrauss wrote, and proper preparation might offer a sliver of consolation “for the bereaved families who day in and day out face with courage and nobility the most awful of losses.”

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