Residents of several towns and communities near Jerusalem, whose properties and surroundings were devastated by Israel’s largest forest fire in over a decade, began returning to their homes on Tuesday to assess the damage left behind.
Their return came as emergency services said they had gained full control of the flames following a three-day battle. Over 2,000 people had been evacuated from their homes since Sunday, when the fire started.
The Fire and Rescue Service said that during a 52-hour battle forces confronted seven hotspots and that 1,500 firefighters comprising 200 units had participated in the efforts.
The Palestinian Authority also sent four firefighting teams to assist the Israelis.
They were aided by 20 firefighting aircraft. And on Tuesday evening, these were joined for the first time by an air force Shimshon (Super Hercules) transport plane especially kitted out to drop fire retardant on the blaze.
In total, planes dropped some 190,000 liters of retardant along with over half a million liters of foam.
The fire service said that the addition of the Shimshon, which can carry several tons of retardant, was a major boost for the country’s firefighting capabilities.
“The use of the Hercules planes will in the future enable better handling of largescale fires, at all hours of the day as necessary,” a firefighting official told Channel 12 news.
The enormous wildfire consumed some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of forest outside Jerusalem since Sunday — surpassing the scale of a December 2010 forest fire in the north that burned 24,000 dunams and claimed the lives of 44 people.
Fire and Rescue Services Jerusalem District Commander Nissim Twito declined to say if the fire was caused deliberately or by negligence, telling the Kan public broadcaster that efforts so far had been focused on putting out the fire rather than determining the cause.
A few houses were destroyed by the blaze that devastated the woodlands near Jerusalem. Some residents lost their homes, others their life’s work.
Micha Harari, a resident of Ramat Raziel, found that his harp workshop and gallery, housing instruments he had made by hand over the past 40 years, had been reduced to ashes.
“Everything was burned, the gallery, the work complex. Nothing was left,” he told Channel 12 news.
Harari recounted fleeing for his life when the flames first roared toward the community.
“When the fire sparked, I was in my work complex, which is 150 meters (492 feet) from the house,” he said. “I saw the flames begin to approach. My wife and I fled immediately. We didn’t even have time to pack a bag, take any more clothes or food. We had to leave as quickly as possible.”
He posted images to his Facebook page of the approaching flames and the devastation they left behind. His wife’s natural medicine clinic was also totally destroyed.
“When I saw my life’s work burned to the ground, I was crushed,” he said. “Everything has completely disappeared, nothing remains.”
The fire just before it hit the back of the harp workshop.Edited: Our dear friends have put together a campaign to help…
Harari told the station that his insurance company had refused to insure the work complex because of its close proximity to the forest and the fire risk.
“Even before the disaster, they understood the danger that can happen here,” he said.
Some local residents were critical of the state’s initial response to the fire, claiming that planes should have been part of the effort from the start.
“We saw the fire in Beit Meir and it started moving toward us. Had planes gone up at that moment, it would have been over in the blink of an eye, with no damage,” Eli Ben Zaken, a winery owner from Ramat Raziel, told Walla news.
“I came home and the fire had already neared us. We were lucky the fire passed us from both sides, but didn’t pass here. There is no direct damage, but the smoke is devastating for wine. We have 60 tons we can’t use. The damage is immense,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council agreed on providing assistance to residents whose property was damaged in the fire, the Walla news website reported. The council was assured that a budget will be provided for rehabilitation and that residents will be compensated for the damage.
While other communities were left to the mercy of the flames and the efforts of firefighters, Kibbutz Tzova took the fight to the fire by activating a special defensive water system that doused the surrounding woods to prevent flames from reaching residents’ homes, which were untouched by the conflagration.
Following a massive forest fire in the 1990s that threatened to spread to the kibbutz, administrators decided to lay down a perimeter track with a pipeline running along it that can be used to soak nearby bushland as protection against forest fires.
Community members told the Walla website the system was used and likely prevented the flames from spreading to homes. Tzova was one of the communities evacuated due to the danger of the fire.
Kibbutz secretary Eitan Lavanah told the website that the system has been used several times as a precaution in the years since it was installed.
“The idea, from our point of view, is to take a step forward in everything and to not leave things to luck,” he said.
He said the flames had come within meters of the kibbutz on Monday, but acknowledged he couldn’t say if the hosing down by the pipeline was what stopped them from reaching residential buildings.
He said the dousing system was still being used Tuesday. “From the morning we are soaking the ground to prevent embers from catching alight,” he said.
It was the first time that residents have been evacuated from the kibbutz due to a fire, Lavanah noted.
“It had tremendous significance and people were amazed,” he said. “We had the least damage in the area. As far as we are concerned the whole incident was handled in an amazing way.”
Kibbutz member Avi, identified only by his first name, was more confident that the pipeline saved the community, telling Walla that the water was turned on before the flames arrived.
“And it worked great,” he said. “In addition to the wind direction which was very lucky for us.”
Other communities are now looking at installing a similar system, the report said.
Avi said seeing the blackened landscape after the fire is “a nightmare.”
“The mountains of Jerusalem will be changed forever, it will take many years for the vegetation here to develop,” he said.
“It is black for the heart, not just the eyes,” he said.
Officials predicted a rehabilitation process that may take decades.
Firefighters believed they had managed to contain the blaze on Sunday night, but strong morning winds and low humidity on Monday sent the flames roaring back and speeding toward villages and towns throughout the hills on Jerusalem’s southwest outskirts, triggering the evacuation of some 2,000 local residents and prompting the government to seek international aid. By Tuesday, fire chiefs said that the assistance was no longer needed.
Many dozens of firefighting teams and planes took part in the efforts, with several additional aircraft used on Tuesday.
Israel has been sweltering under yet another heatwave with low humidity, providing ideal conditions for the flames to spread.
The blaze is now one of the biggest in the country’s history, surpassing what had thus far been the largest in the Jerusalem area, in 1995. It has scorched vast green forest areas that include beloved hiking paths and national parks, including the Sataf site and Har Hatayasim.