Crippling Carmel Blaze Raises Concern Over Israel's Ability to Prevent Disasters

Comptroller likely to issue scathing report in wake of Carmel blaze; rain falls on region after four days of wildfire that caused deaths of 42 people.

Firefighters gained control over the Carmel blaze on Sunday afternoon, after four days of battling the flames that caused the deaths of 42 people - and three days before the state comptroller is expected to release a scathing report, revealing governmental lapses in the handling of firefighting preparedness.

The fire has also raised concerns within Israel over the government's lack of financial readiness to ward off other disasters.

fire - Alon Ron - December 4 2010
Alon Ron

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said Sunday he would not postpone the release of a report on the fire service that his office is now compiling, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to expand the document to include a critique of the government's preparedness for the Carmel fire.

Lindenstrauss is expected to issue the report Wednesday, but is due to meet with staff in his office on Monday to discuss whether to undertake a separate investigation of the Carmel fire.

Some see Netanyahu's request as a way of providing the public with an investigation of the wildfire, without having to establish a commission of inquiry.

But sources in the premier's office said Netanyahu was just seeking an initial report, especially since the comptroller was already investigating the country's preparedness for dealing with fires.

"That doesn't mean there won't be an additional investigation in the future," one of the sources said.

The comptroller has already critiqued the state's fire preparedness, saying in a 2007 report that the fire service is the weakest of Israel's rescue forces.

Another report, issued early this year, stated that the situation of the fire service had significantly deteriorated in the time since the first report. Soon afterward, Interior Minister Eli Yishai initiated a cabinet resolution to inject more funding into the fire service.

The crippling blaze has highlighted the fact that Israel may not be financially ready to prevent natural or chemical disasters of other sorts.

For instance, the 2011 budget of the inter-ministerial steering committee that deals with earthquake preparedness is zero: There is no funding whatsoever, despite the fact that the committee submitted a request for money for, among other things, civil rescue units, a warning system, data collection, earthquake-risk assessments, and public education and information efforts.

A ministerial committee approved the budget, but the cabinet has yet to do so, so the committee in question will begin the new year with nothing.

Also, just as the inadequacies of the country's firefighting services were known to the country's leaders for years, so too are the lapses in aviation safety.

The December 2007 report by a committee appointed by then-Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and headed by former Israel Air Force Commander Amos Lapidot made 75 recommendations concerning correction of major problems in civil aviation safety.

Recent health ministry reports also find that Israel would be unable to prevent a potential epidemic and has found that Israel could still be left lacking hospital beds and doctors in the posited worst-case scenario - a quarter of the population (1.6 million people ) sick, 10,000 hospitalized and 2,900 dying.

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Ministry is ill-prepared to deal with an accident at an industrial plant holding hazardous materials, Minister Gilad Erdan acknowledged in the wake of the fire.

It is his ministry that is responsible for directives dealing with the storage of hazardous materials, but as ministry professionals have long known, the ministry lacks the necessary resources to properly monitor handling of dangerous substances.