'Every launch is a real threat,' says Israeli fire official

Fires have become the most visible sign of the conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border

Hezbollah attacks have torched 21,500 acres in northern Israel, and IDF strikes have burned 10,000 acres in Lebanon; security concerns often hamper crucial firefighting efforts

An Israeli flag flutters next to a fire burning in an area near the border with Lebanon, in Safed, June 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)
An Israeli flag flutters next to a fire burning in an area near the border with Lebanon, in Safed, June 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

SHEBAA, Lebanon — With ceasefire talks stalling in Gaza and no clear off-ramp for the conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border, the daily exchanges of strikes between the IDF and the Hezbollah terror group have sparked fires that are tearing through forests and farmland on both sides of the front line.

The blazes — exacerbated by supply shortages and security concerns — have consumed thousands of hectares of land in both northern Israel and southern Lebanon, becoming one of the most visible signs of the escalating conflict.

There is an increasingly real possibility of a full-scale war — one that would likely have catastrophic consequences for people on both sides of the border. Some fear the fires sparked by a larger conflict would also cause irreversible damage to the land.

Burn scars in Israel

The slopes of Mount Meron, Israel’s second-highest mountain and home to an air base, were long covered in native oak trees, a dense grove providing shelter to wild pigs, gazelles and rare species of flowers and fauna.

Now the green slopes are interrupted by three new burn scars — the largest a few hundred square meters — remnants of a Hezbollah explosive drone shot down a few weeks ago. Park rangers worry that devastation has just begun.

“The damage this year is worse a dozen times over last year,” said Shai Koren, of the northern district for Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. Looking over the slopes of Meron, Koren said he doesn’t expect this forest to survive the summer: “You can take a before and after picture.”

Firefighters check a burned area at Biriya Forest, from previous shelling attacks from Lebanon, near the town of Hatzor Haglilit, northern Israel, June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Charred remains in Lebanon

In Israel, the images of fires sparked by Hezbollah’s rockets have driven public outrage and spurred far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to declare last month that it is “time for all of Lebanon to burn.”

Much of it was already burning.

Fires in Lebanon began in late April — earlier than the usual fire season — and have torn through the largely rural areas along the border.

The Sunni town of Shebaa, tucked in the mountains on Lebanon’s southeastern edge, has little Hezbollah presence, and the town hasn’t been targeted as frequently as other border villages. But the sounds of shelling still boom regularly, and in the mountains above it, formerly oak-lined ridges are charred and bare.

Lebanese Civil Defense firefighters extinguish fires that erupted by Israeli shelling at a cherry orchard in Shebaa, a Lebanese town near the border with Israel, June 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramiz Dallah)

In a cherry orchard on the outskirts of town, clumps of fruit hang among browned leaves after a fire sparked by an Israeli strike tore through. Firefighters and local men — some using their shirts to beat out flames — stopped the blaze from reaching houses and a UN peacekeeper center nearby.

“Grass will come back next year, but the trees are gone,” said Moussa Saab, whose family owns the orchard. “We’ll have to get saplings and plant them, and you need five or seven years before you can start harvesting.”

Saab refuses to leave with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. They can’t afford to live elsewhere, and they fear not being able to return, as happened to his parents when they left the disputed Shebaa Farms area — captured from Syria by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Lebanon.

A man shows a tree that was burned by a fire sparked by Israeli shelling at a cherry orchard, in Shebaa, a Lebanese town near the border with Israel, June 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Numbers and weapons

Since the war began, the Israel Defense Forces has tracked 5,450 launches from Lebanon toward northern Israel. According to Israeli think tank the Alma Research and Education Center, most early launches were short-range anti-tank missiles, but Hezbollah’s drone usage has increased.

The border clashes began October 8, a day after the Hamas-led terror onslaught in southern Israel that killed around 1,200 people and saw 251 taken hostage, sparking the war in Gaza.

An Israeli plane uses a fire retardant to extinguish a fire burning in an area near the border with Lebanon, in Safed, June 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. Hezbollah has named 360 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 65 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and more than 90 civilians have been reported killed.

Exchanges have intensified since early May, when Israel launched its incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah. That coincided with the beginning of the hot, dry wildfire season.

Since May, Hezbollah strikes have resulted in 8,700 hectares (about 21,500 acres) burned in northern Israel, according to the Nature and Parks Authority.

Eli Mor, of Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services, said drones, which are much more accurate than rockets, often “come one after another, the first one with a camera and the second one will shoot.”

“Every launch is a real threat,” Mor added.

A cow stands under a tree next to a burned area affected by a fire that sparked out after a shelling attack from Lebanon, in the Golan Heights, June 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

In southern Lebanon, about 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) have burned due to Israeli strikes, said George Mitri, of the Land and Natural Resources program at the University of Balamand. In the two years before, he said, Lebanon’s total area burned annually was 500 to 600 hectares (1,200 to 1,500 acres).

Fire response

Security concerns hamper the response to a fire’s first crucial hours. Firefighting planes are largely grounded over fears they’ll be shot down. On the ground, firefighters often can’t move without army escorts.

“If we lose half an hour or an hour, it might take us an extra day or two days to get the fire under control,” said Mohammad Saadeh, head of Lebanon’s Shebaa civil defense station. The station responded to 27 fires in three weeks last month — nearly as many as in a normal year.

On the other side of the border, Moran Arinovsky used to be a chef and is now deputy commander of the emergency squad at Kibbutz Manara. With about 10 others, he’s fought more than 20 fires in the past two months.

Mor, of Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services, said firefighters often must triage.

“Sometimes we have to give up on open areas that are not endangering people or towns,” Mor said.

Smoke rises to the sky as a fire burns an area after a Lebanese shelling, in the Golan Heights, June 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

The border areas are largely depopulated. Israel’s government evacuated a 4-kilometer strip early in the war, leaving only soldiers and emergency personnel. In Lebanon, there’s no formal evacuation order, but large swaths have become virtually uninhabitable.

Some 95,000 people in Lebanon and 60,000 people in Israel have been displaced for nine months.

Kibbutz Sde Nehemia didn’t evacuate, and Efrat Eldan Schechter said some days she watches helplessly as plumes of smoke grow closer to home.

“There’s a psychological impact, the knowledge and feeling that we’re alone,” she said, because firefighters can’t access certain areas.

Israel’s cowboys, who graze beef cattle in the Golan Heights, often band together to fight blazes when firefighters cannot arrive quickly.

Schechter noted that news footage of flames tearing across hillsides has focused more attention on the conflict in her backyard, instead of solely on the Gaza war. “Only when the fires started, only then we are in the headlines in Israel,” she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that as fighting in Gaza winds down, Israel will send more troops to its northern border in order to restore security there. That could open a new front and raise the risk of more destructive fires.

On Thursday, Israel’s Fire and Rescue Service said it was tackling fires in 10 separate areas sparked by barrages of missiles fired by Hezbollah in retaliation for an Israeli strike that killed one of its top commanders the day before.

Koren says natural wildfires are a normal part of the forest’s lifecycle and can promote ecodiversity, but not the fires from the conflict: “The moment the fires happen over and over, that’s what creates the damage.”

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