Fire chief says Jerusalem-area towns fiddling as surrounding woods set to burn again

As the nation girds for fire season, communities in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council threatened by a large blaze last year are being accused of ignoring advice to avoid a repeat

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

A brush fire west of Jerusalem, August 15, 2021. (Ariel Kedem/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
A brush fire west of Jerusalem, August 15, 2021. (Ariel Kedem/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Communities in the Jerusalem area nearly devastated by wildfires a year ago have failed to take precautions ahead of the return of Israel’s dry season, with the forest around them “an explosive device” primed to engulf them yet again, Jerusalem’s head firefighter has warned.

The warning came as governmental authorities and other bodies have ramped up efforts to prepare for wildfire season, clearing underbrush and other overgrown flora that could provide fuel for brush fires to keep blazes contained and introducing new tools that officials hope will help them deal with a problem only expected to get worse.

Towns in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, which encompasses the hilly wooded region west of the capital that sees wildfires on a near-annual basis, have yet to make efforts to thin vegetation around homes that are on the forest edge, Jerusalem District Fire and Rescue Service head Eyal Cohen said last week.

“Following last year’s fires, we carried out inspections in communities close to forests in the Jerusalem and Mateh Yehuda area and issued audit reports, which included instructions for clearing areas,” Cohen told The Times of Israel via a spokesman. “Unfortunately… it doesn’t seem that the lessons have been learned on the ground.”

Most communities in the Mateh Yehuda region were not following instructions issued by fire and rescue authorities, Cohen charged.

“That is despite the large fires last year, the danger to human life and property, the great damage caused to nature, and the extreme weather we are experiencing against the backdrop of global warming,” he said.

Last August, huge fires burned through some 11,000 dunams (2,720 acres) of forest outside Jerusalem over a 52-hour period, in what was suspected, but never proven, to be the result of arson. Over 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes and several houses were destroyed, though populated areas were largely spared.

In one instance, police and others mounted a dramatic rescue of patients and staff trapped in a psychiatric facility deep in the forest. The hospital ended up being spared, likely thanks to a fire break that the director had asked the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) to put in only months earlier.

The burned hillside beneath Eitanim hospital following a wildfire in the Jerusalem hills, August 21, 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

Cohen noted that an especially rainy winter had spurred the growth of more vegetation, which dries out and turns into “nothing less than an explosive device.” The more plant material there is, the larger, wider and more intense wildfires can get.

The Mateh Yehuda Regional Council administers some 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) of towns, farms, forests and open land to the south and west of Jerusalem. It was home to some 58,000 people as of 2018, according to the council’s information.

A spokesperson said that the council had earmarked more than NIS 2 million ($589,000) extra for communities to carry out fire-prevention work, but it was up to the individual communities to get the work done.

“Dozens of localities began the process [of preparing for wildfires] many months ago. Some, such as Moshav Ora [next to Jerusalem] have completed them, and others are expected to finish in the near future,” he said.

The spokesman noted that the council was not empowered to carry out the work within communities and that land bordering them was managed not by the council but by other bodies, including KKL and the INPA.

Fire closes in on Moshav Giv’at Ye’arim in the Jerusalem Hills, August 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A 2017 government report 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. The recommendation has never been implemented.

Israel experiences a massive wildfire every few years, with especially large ones in 1989, 1995, 2010, 2016, 2019 and last year. Climate models show they’re getting more frequent and more fast-spreading, in part due to rising temperatures and a longer summer dry season.

According to a statement put out by the Environmental Protection Ministry last year, 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.”

Cohen said he attempted to impress the seriousness of the situation upon Niv Wiesel, who leads the regional council, at a recent meeting.

Eyal Cohen, acting head of the Jerusalem District Fire Service. (Courtesy: Jerusalem District Fire Service)

He said the service had recommended that Mateh Yehuda build large water basins in fire-prone areas to help make up for the relative paucity of hydrants and low water pressure in the semi-rural region.

The Mateh Yehuda spokesman said that the idea, which would require building permits and budgets, was being considered.

Cohen contrasted the regional council’s actions with those of Jerusalem, where the city and its mayor Moshe Lion were cooperating fully, Cohen said, clearing vegetation where needed and adding fire hydrants throughout the capital in conjunction with the Gihon water company.

The Fire Service was also upping its readiness in the area, adding a new fire station in Moshav Ora, which adjoins Jerusalem’s forested western edge. The station is expected to save valuable time getting to fires in the Jerusalem Forest which could encroach on Yad Vashem or the capital’s western neighborhoods, including Ein Kerem, where one of the country’s largest trauma wards is located.

The KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority are also girding for fire season, with crews working nationwide to clear vegetation, build fire breaks and equip monitoring posts and rangers, including in the Mateh Yehuda region.

Looking for smoke and following the flames

In northern Israel, INPA crews have been busy with preparations and emergency drills in hotspots such as the Carmel Forest, where a massive wildfire in December 2010 claimed the lives of 44 people and consumed 25,380 dunams (6,271), a quarter of the woodland’s area.

Natan Elbaz, the INPA’s northern district forestry director, said his team had been making sure there were adequate fire breaks around Haifa University, the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel, and other inhabited areas within and around the forest.

The Carmel Fire raged across northern Israel during Hanukkah 2010, claiming 44 lives. Nineteen Palestinian firefighters joined the effort to stop the fire. (Courtesy/Firelines)

“We’re always adding new fire breaks around new neighborhoods,” he said.

The organization has also been repairing access roads that run through nature reserves to ensure easy access for firefighting vehicles, thinning out the vegetation along the sides.

Elbaz noted that firefighters often have to rely on INPA rangers for their superior knowledge of the terrain. Rangers are being outfitted with fire extinguishers and trained to report any suspicious sightings of smoke or flames.

Natan Elbaz. (Meir Ben Sira)

And the authority has equipped small trucks and carts, and even tractors, with mini extinguishing systems that can spring into action before the big fire trucks can make it from the cities, Elbaz said. Drones are being employed to help track which direction a fire is traveling.

New to the INPA’s firefighting arsenal will be a series of folding frame tanks, which resemble small above-ground pools, that can be erected and filled with water quickly, a practice Elbaz borrowed from the US. The pools bring larger amounts of water closer to the fire, allowing firefighters to replenish supplies without having to wait for a tanker truck or an airborne craft to return from a refilling run.

A fire pool being tested during an Israel Nature and Parks Authority emergency drill in the Megiddo Forest, May 2, 2022. (Avishai Elimelech)

Gilad Ostrovsky, chief forester and forestry department director at KKL, which manages some 300,000 acres of forest throughout Israel, said NIS 50 million ($14.7 million) had been added to the budget for fire prevention this year.

Among the organization’s efforts, it had remapped places to determine where fire breaks are needed. It also added new portable control rooms.

Gilad Ostrovsky, Chief Forester and forestry department director at KKL. (Bonnie Sheinman/KKL photo archive)

To keep an eye out for new fires, as well as spot illegal dumping and vandalism, the organization is introducing a large drone that uses a thermal, infrared 360-degree camera to scan land dozens of kilometers away, during day or night.

The organization has dubbed the unmanned plane tinshemet, Hebrew for barn owl.

On the ground, KKL is ensuring that the lookout posts it maintains are manned during wildfire season, from May through the end of October, and even into November, during daylight hours.

“The critical element in fighting fires is speed,” Elbaz said.

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