Many Carmel Fire Victims Still Waiting for Compensation

Four years after blaze, fire department says it's better prepared.

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Firefigthers battling fire in the Carmel Forest.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Four years after the Carmel Forest fire that raged for days, took 44 lives and caused unprecedented damage, the country’s firefighting capabilities have improved and some compensation has been paid. Many of those affected, however, complain of legal tangles and bureaucratic obstacles, while the victims’ families are still demanding answers.

According to a scathing State Comptroller’s Report on the disaster published in June 2012, the Fire and Rescue Service was short at least 200 firefighters and 130 vehicles, while those vehicles in service had not been upgraded as needed. According to the report, only 10 percent of required fire retardant was on hand when the fire broke out: While there was meant to be 250 tons on hand and 200 tons in emergency inventory, the country’s total inventory at the time was only 20 tons.

But according to data provided by the Fire and Rescue Authority, things have improved. A national control center was established and the communications system was upgraded. Current inventory of fire-retardant material totals 1,680 tons, with another 240 tons on the way. Twenty new fire stations have been built since 2012, and 127 new firefighting vehicles are in service. There are now 1,800 firemen, compared to 1,250 in 2010. While that’s an improvement in the firefighter-to-resident ratio, the authority says, the ratio is still low compared to what prevails in Europe and the United States.

Despite the improved data, Nava Boker, widow of Brig. Gen. Lior Boker, who was killed in the Carmel blaze, doubts that the country’s emergency services are prepared to handle an emergency of similar scope. “I don’t think we’re prepared for a mass disaster,” said Boker, who founded and manages a foundation to support the fire and rescue workers. “It would be enough for one missile to fall near the oil refineries or something similar. We aren’t capable of dealing with such a complex emergency,” she said.

Boker complained that bureaucratic difficulties made it hard to even make donations to the emergency services. “We accept that no one took responsibility, but at least let them fix things as they promised and not heap difficulties on the fire and rescue commissioner and the district commanders, who are trying to manage the whole system on [inadequate] budgets.”

Communities in the Mount Carmel region that suffered damage report widely varying official responses. The Carmel Coast Regional Council expressed general satisfaction with the government’s response, saying that work is now proceeding on a pipeline that will eventually serve the new firefighting air squadron.

Zion Gez, director of the artists’ village in Ein Hod, said the government decision in January 2011 to improve the infrastructure in the damaged area has generally been implemented. But much still needs to be done to prevent the next disaster, he said, “primarily regarding the protection of the water systems that are meant to surround the village, and putting a fire truck at the village’s disposal so that we will be less at the mercy of others around us.”

Another painful issue, says Gez, is that four years after the fire, many insurance claims are still tied up in court. Not only are businesses trying to get compensation for lost income due to the fire, but once the insurance companies pay, he said, they seek redress by trying to shift the blame to almost any third party they can identify, including the artists’ village. These claims are being heard in Haifa District Court.

But while Gez said that only one home in the artists’ village has yet to be repaired, in Kibbutz Beit Oren, where 36 homes were damaged, not one home has been rebuilt and the residents are still in mobile homes. According to Ram Ronen, chairman of the kibbutz holding company, it took three-and-a-half years to get the urban building plan for rebuilding approved. Infrastructure repairs only began eight months ago, when some of the insurance money was paid out, and requests for building permits are still facing bureaucratic obstacles.

In the Arab village of Ein Hud, adjacent to Ein Hod, the main road to the village was improved since the fire, but nothing else has been done. “The businesses here suffered damage and we’re still in court,” said Mubarak Abu al-Hija, the village secretary, who said the businesses are fighting both the state and the insurance companies, and no one has decided who is meant to pay compensation.

The village’s 300 residents are used to this, he said. “In ’98 half the community burned down, and we didn’t get a cent,” he said. “People were hurt, no one compensated anyone. But it doesn’t matter, that’s passed already.” While no homes in Ein Hud burned down during the Carmel fire, many electrical appliances were damaged by soot and smoke.

Al-Hija is aware that Ein Hod has already been compensated. “They’re stronger there,” he said, but wouldn’t elaborate.

Oren Yahalom, the community manager of Moshav Nir Etzion, said that while no structures in the moshav were damaged, the authorities are demanding that the moshav make preventative infrastructure improvements but no government money for this seems to be forthcoming.

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