Golan Heights fire, 6.11.2010
A plane assessing damage in the Golan Heights, Nov. 6, 2010. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
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A massive fire set off by hikers destroyed over 13,000 dunams (some 3,000 acres ) of woodland and pastures in the Golan Heights, seriously damaging a nature reserve, firefighters said yesterday.

The fire began on Friday afternoon when travelers burned discarded toilet paper near Umm el-Qanatir, and continued for over 30 hours before finally being brought under control yesterday afternoon.

"Initial investigation shows that the fire started by the travelers spread rapidly and soon reached nearby Somech stream," said Katzrin fire brigade commander Yair Elkayam. The numerous firefighting crews who took on the fire were aided by rangers and local directors from the National Parks Authority, military units, Golan Heights ranchers and employees of the Golan Regional Council, as well as four firefighting planes.

The fire appeared to have largely died out by Friday night, and crews were hoping that yesterday morning's humidity would stop the flames from rekindling anew. However, Saturday turned out much drier than expected, and the warm weather and winds whipped the fire up again.

"The adverse weather conditions, including winds, heat and dryness increased the flames and made work much more difficult for the crews," Elkayam said. "Every now and then the fire would suddenly change direction, misleading us. The terrain was also very rough and slowed down our work."

After winds subsided around noon, the fire was brought under control. The firefighting crews remained in the area, wary that stronger afternoon winds would rekindle the fire, and made sure the flames were completely extinguished by evening.

"Normally by this time of the year we are already past the wildfire season, but this November is still pretty warm. I look around after these last two days of wildfires and it's all black," said Guy Eilon, director of the northern district in the Nature and Parks Authority. "The flora will recover after two or three years, but the main problem is the animal life - the smaller animals have no chance of surviving such a fire."

After the fire, the Nature and Parks Authority sought to stress that burning toilet paper in nature reserves is extremely dangerous. "It seems the group was trying to be ecological, but in fact they caused an enormous amount of damage," one official said.