Israeli Army Takes Heat for Causing Widespread Brush Fires

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An IDF exercise in the Lachish region, March 1, 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Israel Defense Forces activity in the Lachish region in recent months has led to widespread fires that have caused serious damage to the local ecology, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The state agency claims the army has failed to properly prevent or fight fires and lacks necessary firefighting equipment.

Army activity has led to many fires in the south-central region over the past several years, but this year the number has been exceptionally high. For the first time, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has used satellite photography and geographic data systems to record fires in the area.

The agency says that of around 60 brush and forest fires in the Lachish region since April, 40 were the result of IDF training exercises. They destroyed 68,000 dunams (around 17,000 acres) of scrubland, containing numerous species of animals and low-growing plants. For the sake of comparison, the massive fire in the Carmel Forest in northern Israel in 2010 affected 25,000 dunams.

“It’s one of the most sensitive areas in Israel,” says the director of the INPA’s central district, Uri Naveh. “The army did not buy firefighting equipment or take preventive measures such as creating burn lines. It did not allow the introduction of goats and sheep to thin out the vegetation by grazing, which could prevent the spread of fires. We received lots of promises, but nothing was done,” says Naveh.

The IDF’s multiple-year budget includes the acquisition of firefighting equipment in the future, but the INPA says the army was already supposed to have introduced practices aimed at preventing fires, including the deployment of vehicles with water-spraying capabilities to every company training in the area.

“This equipment was never purchased by the army,” says Naveh, adding, “commanders and soldiers in the area try to help, but they don’t have the gear. We’ve seen incidents in which soldiers try to put out fires with their shirts.” The agency says that in other cases, army units did not halt training to fight fires they had caused.

Naveh says it costs the agency millions of shekels to fight these fires.

“The fires cause direct damage, including harm to birds of prey, reptiles and rodents that fail to escape in time,” points out Dr. Yariv Malichi, the ecologist of the INPA’s central district. “The adult birds manage to fly away but their mating seasons are often disrupted. Burning foliage in the area affects the food supply for the local Israeli gazelle population, and the species, found only in Israel, is in danger of extinction. A tenth of all Israeli Gazelles are native to the area in question,” adds Malichi.

Since humans first appeared in the area, foliage in Israel has developed the capability to adapt and defend itself from fires. According to Malichi, however, some plant species are particularly susceptible to fires. The frequent fires in the area severely affect those species, the disappearance of which is affecting the food supply for local animals.

“The IDF has conducted and will continue to conduct drills to practice assisting firefighters in preventing the spread of fires, to reduce their likelihood and to extinguish fires that do break out. Inquiries about this issue have been received and are being handled by the proper officials,” the IDF said in a response.

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