Forest Fires in Israel Will Only Get Worse in Coming Years, Experts Warn

'Winter is beginning later, and the months of November and December have become very dry, with strong winds,' Hanoch Tzoref of JNF says.

Fires burn in the horizon as firefighters battle to control a fire that broke out in Nataf, west of Abu Ghosh, along the border with the West Bank on November 25, 2016.
Israel fires: Fires burn in the horizon as firefighters battle to control a fire that broke out in Nataf, west of Abu Ghosh, along the border with the West Bank on November 25, 2016. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

The forest fires of the past few years will only get worse in the years to come, experts warned Sunday.

In the Jerusalem Hills area alone, the past week’s fires have so far destroyed more than 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of forest, and as of Sunday night, firefighters were still battling blazes. The Jerusalem Hills also suffered fires in 2014 and this past May.

Aerial footage of the aftermath of fires in Nataf, near Jerusalem Elements

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Israel is not the only country experiencing an upsurge in fire damage. Forest fires of similar magnitude or worse have recently been raging annually throughout the Mediterranean basin, including in Spain, Portugal, Greece and France, as well as in other parts of the globe, such as California and Australia.

Data from Israel’s fire-fighting service shows that the number of forest fires hasn’t risen in recent years, and over the past two years has even declined. But the magnitude of the past few years’ fires – especially those occurring in autumn – is unprecedented, as is the damage they have caused.

“It’s connected to climate change,” explained Hanoch Tzoref, Jerusalem regional director for the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael). “Winter is beginning later, and the months of November and December have become very dry, with strong winds. Continuous dry, strong winds not only dry the laundry, but also the vegetation, and turns it into highly flammable material.”

Nevertheless, Tzoref added, the climate conditions of the past few days have been exceptional. “I’ve had 40 years’ experience in the Jerusalem Hills, and don’t remember weather like that of the past week. Continuous dry winds for an entire week – I don’t remember anything like it.”

Yohay Carmel, professor of Environmental, Water and Agricultural Engineering at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, agreed that climate change is causing “things we haven’t seen before. In 2010, there was no significant rainfall until early December, so the vegetation had endured nine months of aridity.” This year has been similar, and “in this situation, you don’t need arson; anything can ignite the vegetation.”

This year’s fires were also unusual because the winds were easterly rather than westerly. In the Jerusalem area, that helped slow the fires, as a wind from the west would have caused much greater damage.

Another problem is that dense pine forests, which are common around Jerusalem, are particularly flammable. Today, therefore, the JNF plants many fewer pines than it did in the past, preferring to plant other types of trees, and regularly thins out existing groves of young pines.