People in the Gamla reserve after it reopened on Saturday, following the fire.
People in the Gamla reserve after it reopened on Saturday, following the fire. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Large crowds visited the Gamla nature reserve in the Golan Heights on Saturday to see the massive damage caused by a fire that followed an Israel Defense Forces training exercise there last week. The fire, reportedly started by a spark from a tank, consumed some 20,000 dunams (about 5,000 acres ) of the nature reserve. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority called on the public to come to Gamla as an act of "identification" with the site.

Although the charred remains of dozens of animals have been found where the fire raged last week, the antiquities in the park were saved from destruction and only lightly damaged.

The fire broke out between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, consuming a region that is a leading nesting site for vultures and other birds of prey. As the blaze spread, there was concern for the safety of 15 young vultures that were being kept in acclimatization cages in anticipation of their release into the wild. They were moved to a safer location.

Over the weekend, after the flames were extinguished, park personnel began assessing the damage. The Gamla reserve's ecologist, Yael Horesh, said the remains of dozens of animals, including turtles, snakes and lizards, have been found. Other wildlife, including jackals and wolves, appear to have managed to flee the fire. A number of Egyptian vultures that were nesting in the area also survived.

According to the director general of the Nature and Parks Authority, Eli Amitai, it was decided to open the reserve to the public to show "the extent of the damage, as a [means of] identification [by the public with the reserve], to hear what happened and [about] the difficult [process of] rehabilitation that is anticipated."

Amitai said that in light of the large portion of the park that was consumed by the flames, the rehabilitation process will be lengthy. Some of the damage, he added, is irreversible. He said the desire of visitors to come to the reserve "turns the public into a loyal partner concerned with preventing future disasters like this."

Archaeological remains on the site, including an ancient synagogue and mikveh (ritual Jewish purification bath ) covered with fragile plaster, were spared. The ancient artifacts are in a relatively unaffected location surrounded by blackened terrain. Zeev Margalit, an architect who is the director of the preservation and development division at the Parks Authority, said the antiquities may have been saved because of maintenance and the clearing of undergrowth. He also said the many paths for visitors at the archaeological site might have served as a firewall of sorts to halt the flames' spread.

The IDF said over the weekend that it is investigating the source of the fire.