On April 30, a day before the official start of Israel’s forest fire season, workers in the Mount Carmel National Park in northern Israel were busy with chainsaws, lopping off the lower branches of trees.
The idea, explained Natan Elbaz, the northern district forestry director for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, was to lift the trees’ canopies high off the ground so that in the event of a fire, the flames would be less likely to lick them from below.
“It’s like picking the chairs up and hanging them upside down on the table before you start cleaning the floors,” he said. “You start from the top — from the canopies of the trees — and work down.”
Israel’s native Mediterranean woodland is largely impenetrable. It is dominated by drought-tolerant trees such as oaks and pistachios and a variety of dense evergreen shrubs.
That most of the trees have many stems results from thousands of years of human tampering, said Elbaz, who became the INPA’s first officially titled forester in 2009.
Over the years, some trees have been cut down to ensure space between the others — again to stop flames from spreading — while annual maintenance ensures that the trees are cut back to a single trunk.
Once the trees have been shaped, and the rains have stopped, the focus of work moves to cutting the grasses and other herbaceous plants. These briefly turn Israel green during the winter and spring months, before drying to a highly combustible golden brown.
For this work, Elbaz and his team use everything from a tractor whose blades can be angled to cut vegetation on a slope, to cattle, goats (whose numbers are in decline), and horses, which are abundant on Mount Carmel.
Israel doesn’t have summer storms. All forest fires are manmade and usually result from negligence.
Preventing them, Elbaz explained, was a year-round occupation.
It involved mapping and surveying the land, understanding how fires behave within a given topography, creating work plans, and reviewing equipment.
“You need to understand the land and how the fire will behave before it even starts,” he emphasized, looking down towards Haifa Bay from the University of Haifa. “Here, for example, westerly winds can create a wind tunnel.”
The rule book was written after December 2010, when an unprecedented inferno broke out in the Carmel hills.
It raged for 77 hours, destroyed many homes, forced the evacuation of thousands of area residents, and claimed the lives of 44 people, mainly passengers on an Israel Prison Service bus bound for the Damon Prison in the heart of the park.
The blaze broke out near the Druze town of Usfiyye, was stoked by hot easterly winds, and morphed within a couple of hours into what Elbaz recalled as “a tsunami of fire.”
Asked about the most important lessons learned from that event, Elbaz said the need to train park staff to fight fires before fire teams from the nearest town or city can get to a blaze, the importance of light equipment for speedy arrival at a fire event, and public education to minimize the potential for a fire caused by a discarded cigarette or a barbecue that hasn’t been properly extinguished.
That the 2010 inferno was so destructive was partly due to the large numbers of pine trees, whose oils make them particularly flammable.
In ancient times, pines would have grown only on the hilltops, Elbaz explained. That they spread so successfully was due to the farming practice of slash and burn. Pine seeds thrive in the nutritious ash that remains after a fire.
In recent years, the INPA has been removing non-native pine specimens, and restricting the native Eastern variety of the so-called Aleppo pine to the crests of hills.
Elbaz and his team of 15 work out of a prefabricated hut in Carmel Park.
They are responsible for 500,000 dunams (193 square miles) of woodland from the Hadera Stream in central Israel to Rosh Hanikra in the northwest, on the Lebanese border, and from Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights to the Beit She’an checkpoint in the Jordan Valley in the east.
Within this vast area, the INPA must maintain fire breaks around 164 communities adjacent to woodland, and along 800 kilometers (500 miles) of mainly dirt roads that enable firefighters to get close to any flames.
It must prioritize the areas that need intervention, according to factors that include proximity to roads, infrastructure (such as telecommunication towers), and the presence of humans, be it within residential communities or out in the hills, for example, in campsites.
In the Carmel, two geographical areas have been defined for the bulk of the fire preparation work. One stretches from the Druze village of Usfiyye to Denia, a district of Haifa that includes the University of Haifa campus. The other extends from Usfiyye to the isolated Kibbutz Beit Oren.
For most of the forestry work, Elbaz relies on contractors, whom he says are hard to find because of the relatively low pay, and Israeli creativity.
The latter is critical to speedy arrival at a fire, he said, which can mean the difference between a fire being contained or spreading out of control.
To this end, the INPA’s Carmel Park squad has built its own fire station, with water-ferrying solutions that range from a huge truck, through a tractor, to a small wagon that can be pushed by hand.
“I travel all over the world looking at what others are doing, copy it, and adapt it to our local situation,” Elbaz said.
An onsite ironmonger helps to put those ideas into practice.
They can be as straightforward as creating a large moving steel arm on a base, and attaching a hose to it so that it works like a garden water sprinkler, to free a fireman’s hands up for other tasks.
But the Parks Authority, like the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, which maintains planted forests, is also limited in what it can do.
Towns, villages, and a host of institutions, such as the University of Haifa, are responsible for ensuring that their vegetation is kept clean to prevent the spread of fires.
Not all of them do.
Some don’t have the budgets, Elbaz said, while others didn’t understand what was required.
“The same applies to private homes,” he went on. “You need to prune plants and to clean leaves and pine needles out of the drainpipes and from between the rafters on the roof. Paint your decks with a flame retardant, and get a fire extinguisher and a smoke alarm. ”
He added, “We can create all the firebreaks in the world, but if the homeowner doesn’t take responsibility, the house can still burn down.”
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