Carmel fire - AFP - Dec. 2, 2010
The blaze that continued into the night consumed nearly 10,000 dunams of vegetation. Photo by AFP
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Committees of inquiry, the state comptroller and the fire department have repeatedly warned that a lack of funding has undermined firefighters' ability to do their jobs, but little has changed.

The fire service continues to suffer severe shortages in manpower, vehicles and equipment. Moreover, there are not enough hydrants and sufficient water supply in general to counter large blazes, as yesterday proved.

One of the biggest problems hampering firefighters is the lack of special aircraft. The firefighters call in aircraft owned by the company Kim-Nir in emergencies, but these planes are for spraying agricultural fields or private flights and small cargo. They are not capable of carrying large quantities of water or fire-retardant materials.

Moreover, they lack the proper lights to fly at night and they risk colliding with power cables. Because they are not part of the fire service, the aircraft are not on constant alert, and it takes time to get them ready for action.

Western countries have large, advanced firefighting aircraft that can collect seawater in flight and return to a blaze. Kim-Nir assigned seven aircraft and helicopters to the effort in the Carmel region, but it had to stop once dusk set in.

"It's very hard to control such a large fire with firefighting aircraft, and certainly not without them," said the deputy commander of the Fire and Rescue Service, Haim Tamam. He said his boss had been asking for funds to buy firefighting aircraft, but he was turned down.

Kim-Nir CEO David Golan said that "if the appropriate means were available, whose lack I have reiterated over the past year, some of those killed would have been saved and the fire would not have reached such a scale."

Golan warned that the fire-retardant materials had nearly run out and may not last another day of operations.

Stocks of fire retardants had run out in Israel this year because of the fires that raged five months ago.

A decade ago, the air force's large, heavy-lift helicopters took part in firefighting operations, but the air force stopped this because the thick smoke damaged the choppers' jet engines.

Air force sources said last night participation in firefighting was never defined as part of their role. They said they had never considered procuring special firefighting aircraft.

Greek firefighting aircraft arrived last night at Ramat David Air Base.

Currently there is one firefighter for every 6,000 people in Israel, compared with one per 1,000 in Western countries. In a special report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss examined the preparedness of the Home Front and its conduct during the Second Lebanon War. He concluded that it was necessary to replenish essential equipment to ensure the ability of the fire service to respond to emergencies.

Twelve years ago, a committee headed by Yossi Ginosar recommended an organizational change to the Fire and Rescue Service. The committee discovered a manpower shortage and warned that equipment was outdated and there was no uniform command structure.

At the fire service there is pessimism about the likelihood of significant changes and funding for the organization. "There have been 10 committees of investigation. After this incident there will surely be another one that will make recommendations. But they are not implemented," said Tamam.

"The lack of manpower and equipment, the lack of firefighting aircraft and water infrastructure in risk areas creates an uncontrollable situation when a fire breaks out."

 

Zohar Blumenktrantz and Anshel Pfeffer contributed reporting.