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Ecologists worry over ecosystem’s recovery after huge Jerusalem-area blaze

Hundreds of thousands of small animals feared burned to death, with massive damage to fungi and insects, the basis of the web of life

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The charred corpse of a Mediterranean chameleon in the Jerusalem Hills, on August 17, 2021. (Yaniv Cohen, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
The charred corpse of a Mediterranean chameleon in the Jerusalem Hills, on August 17, 2021. (Yaniv Cohen, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

It’s hard to assess the extent of ecological damage wreaked by the massive fires that have ripped through the Jerusalem Hills since Sunday, turning some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of woodlands into scorched earth.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, who toured the area on Tuesday, described the damage as “unfathomable,” with “entire areas of functioning ecosystems totally wiped out.”

“There’s no doubt that it will be very hard for nature in the Jerusalem Hills to rehabilitate itself,” she said.

It remains unclear whether the fire was started deliberately or not. With no summer storms in Israel, fires are always caused by humans.

Yariv Malichi, central district ecologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, told The Times of Israel that he feared the complete destruction of the area’s fungi and insects that form the basis of the web of life.

“The temperatures were so intense that we’re worried about the creatures that live underground,” he said. “It pressed the reset button for insects. We will have to see how they recover.”

Fire Commissioner Dedy Simhi gives an update on the fires in the Jerusalem hills to Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (in black) and other ministry officials, on Augusst 17, 2021 (Courtesy)

Malichi said that unlike the huge fire of 2010 in the Carmel mountains in northern Israel, the areas destroyed in this week’s blazes are enveloped by nature reserves that have not been harmed.

These are providing sanctuary to some of the larger mammals that were able to flee from the flames, such as fallow deer — reintroduced to Israel after going locally extinct — and gazelles.

A juvenile male fallow deer injured in the fire at Mount Tayassim, Jerusalem, on August 17, 2021. (Ariel Kedem, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

As for smaller creatures, such as lizards, chameleons, hedgehogs and snakes — Malichi estimates that hundreds of thousands have burned to death.

Creatures such as snakes and rodents provide food for predatory birds, which tend to return to the same place every year to nest, he said.

The burned remains of a lizard in the Jerusalem hills, on August 17, 2021. (Yaniv Cohen, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

But the trees have gone, and the birds will have to find accommodation in other locales, where there is competition and little spare room.

And with so many butterflies and caterpillars and ants feared dead, who will pollinate the flowers?

“The whole balance has been shaken and we don’t know where things will go,” he said.

The fire has cleared thousands of dunams of any plants growing there, which means that when the winter rains come, before the annual plants have germinated, there will be no roots to hold the thin mountain soil together.

Malichi said that he was concerned that the rains would wash the soil into the valleys, complete with any seeds waiting to germinate.

He wondered whether orchids — 15 species of which flower in February, drawing crowds to Mount Tayyasim — will bloom as before, now that the pine trees have gone.

An immediate headache is how to get rid of jeeps and motorbikes speeding through the post-blaze sites.

Nature does not recognize a vacuum and ecologists are waiting to see which species will move in first. One likely candidate is the invasive Australian blue-leaf wattle, which germinates easily in disturbed ground and carpets the sides of the Jerusalem to Tel Aviv highway in yellow flowers every spring.

Blue-leaf wattle. (Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Common)

Species of Mediterranean woodland trees, such as oak and pistachio, are able to resprout after a fire.

The fate of the red-barked eastern strawberry trees — known in Hebrew as ktalav — will depend on the state of the symbiotic fungi, without which they cannot grow, Malichi said.

Experts at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, both of which are responsible for different areas that burned this week, agree that the best way to help nature to grow back is to leave it alone. But they disagree about how to handle the pine tree, whose resin and needles make it so highly flammable.

Skeleton of burnt pine trees following a major fire in the Jerusalem hills, on August 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the exception of some remaining ancient stands, most of Israel’s pines trees were planted during the British Mandate, and subsequently by the KKL in the early years of the state, because they were the only species that could grow in land that had been made barren by centuries of deforestation and uncontrolled grazing.

The pine trees do not survive being burned. But their cones, programmed through evolution to wait for extreme heat before they open, liberally release their seeds after fires onto the soil, which is made fertile by ash and is devoid of competition. They germinate en masse during the first couple of winters and, if left to their own devices, will develop into dense and highly combustible stands of trees that prevent other plants from developing and animals from coming in.

Pine trees, like these in southern Israel’s Kommemiyut Forest, are highly flammable. (Shmuel Bar-am)

Following the 2010 blaze in the Mount Carmel National Park and Nature Reserve in northern Israel, in which 44 people died, the state began to invest funds in fire prevention.

Amit Dolev, the INPA’s northern district ecologist, set up a forestry team to ensure that trees are regularly thinned; that pine tree seedlings are removed year after year before they reach sexual maturity; that herbivorous animals, from cows and sheep to gazelles and deer, are allowed in to keep flammable grasses low; and that fire breaks are created and maintained to stop the flames from spreading.

“After the 1989 Carmel fire, we left a few areas alone,” Dolev said. “Today, the density is such that you can’t even get in there.”

Dr Yehoshua Shkedy, Israel Nature and Parks Authority Chief Scientist. (Courtesy: INPA)

Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, the INPA’s chief scientist, went further, saying there are too many trees in the country, and that they should be thinned out to prevent future fires.

“We want lots of trees so that they can absorb carbon dioxide, but when they burn, they emit even more,” he said. “Our country isn’t suited to such tree density. We are living with a time bomb.”

But Nurit Hivshar, head of the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund’s Central Forestry Department said, “There will always be fires, with or without the pines.”

The organization removed pine trees from particular locations, such as shrub habitats and areas of agricultural terracing, but she said she saw no point in removing them from forests in general if they were not near residential areas.

Most planted pines from the early years collapsed from aphid infestations. Some were planted afresh, while others germinated and grew by themselves, she said.

Environment activist Alon Tal, who is now a Knesset lawmaker and was involved with forestry for years through the KKL, said: “There’s a lot of disinformation out there about restoration strategies for burned forests. The great lesson of the last 20 to 30 years is that nature, and natural succession (the process by which forests regrow in stages) remains the best strategy. That’s why KKL forestry policy says don’t do anything for two years.

“The public wants to see planting but that is not what’s called for. Typically, what comes out is more robust and authentic than that which it replaces.”

On the domestic front, some 10,000 laying hens were burned to death when their shed caught fire close to the moshav of Ramat Raziel.

A burned out chicken coop in which 10,000 laying hens perished, at the Ramat Raziel moshav in the Jerusalem Hills, on August 17, 2020. (Hatem Awadalla, Mateh Yehuda Regional Council)

Other than that, the only domestic animal reported to have perished in the blaze was Alice, an elderly dog.

Initially rescued by police in Ksalon, Alice was later released and ran back toward home, only to die in the flames.

Dr. Gil Hacohen, director of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council’s Veterinary Service, told The Times of Israel that the service sent text messages to all pet owners, with the pet’s name, asking them not to forget their animals if they were evacuated.

The service also evacuated hundreds of animals from an educational institution and dozens of dogs from a pound.

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