When Fire Is an Abnormal Event

When the mandatory review of the events surrounding the fire is complete, and its conclusions reported, it must not overlook the ecological conditions that contributed to the pall of smoke wafting from Mt. Carmel.

Daniel Orenstein
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Daniel Orenstein

The flames were still spreading across the Carmel Forest and homes were under imminent threat when a steady stream of commentary began to burst forth. The commentators rightly agreed: Israel was woefully unprepared for a fire of this magnitude, and years of insufficient budgets for firefighters and equipment were tantamount to extreme negligence. The human tragedy of 42 deaths and scores of burnt homes magnified this conclusion.

Rescue workers practicing for an aviation disaster at Ben-Gurion International Airport last month.Credit: Alon Ron

When the mandatory review of the events surrounding the fire is complete, and its conclusions reported, it must not overlook the ecological conditions that contributed to the pall of smoke wafting from Mt. Carmel. How we manage our forests, activities in and around the forests, and climate change are all considerations that should be folded into our long-term policy to avoid the disastrous consequences of future fires.

Note that I don't write that we make policy to avoid future fires. Fires - human-caused and natural - have been occurring on Mt. Carmel for more than 750,000 years. Ecologist Zeev Naveh, who has spent his career studying the Carmel, goes so far as to call it a Mediterranean fire bioclimate. Many of the local species of flora are adapted to, or even dependent on, periodic fires, which clear out their competitors and allow them to regenerate. In this way, biodiversity in the forests is also increased. With the first post-fire winter rains, seedlings signal the forest's regeneration. It is incorrect to speak of burned forest areas as being destroyed.

Re-colonization of burnt areas, however, is contingent upon having undamaged areas from which plants and animals can colonize, and having viable seeds left in the soil to resprout after the fire. This means we need large areas set aside for protection, so that a mosaic of periodic fires can be allowed to occur in different areas and at different times. Further, restoration work following a fire must be conducted with minimal damage to the soil, so as to avoid damaging the seed bank.

But if fire is a normal event, why did this one end so tragically? One reason is our management strategies. A prominent and oft-ignored recommendation from previous post-fire professional reports is the need for creating fire breaks - areas with little to burn - by clearing vegetation away from roads and built-up areas. Cows and goats can often be used in lieu of heavy equipment to prevent the accumulation of flammable material. While too much grazing can be destructive, the ecological system thrives in the presence of a moderate level that lowers fire risk and maintains a high biodiversity of plants. The impending professional review must investigate why, despite numerous recommendations, the scale of fire breaks and forest clearing around built-up areas has been so inadequate.

Another activity to be discouraged is planting of pine trees. Coupled with fire suppression in the naturally occurring oak-pistachio woodland ecosystem, pine plantations are highly flammable, and their presence encourages the outbreak of hotter, more destructive fires. Some pines occur naturally on the Carmel, and they are the first to re-sprout following fires, but pine planting should be restricted from all areas except recreational and picnic areas; the rest should be left to natural regeneration.

The second reason why this fire was so tragic is that many of us want to live surrounded by forest. The most terrible consequence of forest fires is the loss of human life - in particular, of those who live in the forest and those called upon to protect them when it burns. Such losses can be avoided to some extent by preventing further residential and commercial encroachment on forested areas. Preventing such expansion into the Carmel Park will protect human life and property and maximize the size of the area being preserved to assure its long-term ecological viability.

The third reason this fire was so devastating is global climate change. The Carmel fire followed five years of drought, and the driest November in almost 50 years. Local climate modelers predict that the north of Israel will experience warmer temperatures and declining precipitation (and the rain that does fall will come in heavier events ). The result will be more water running off into the sea, higher evaporation rates, and less water infiltration into the ground for the utilization of plants and humans. Israel's current drought is consistent with a climate we'd expect in a warming world. And so are drier forests, which are more susceptible to fire events.

With this increase in fire threat due to climate change in mind, Israel has two policy options: prevention and adaptation. On the one hand, we should be reducing our carbon emissions. Indeed, the recent government decision to reduce these emissions by 20 percent in the next decade is a good start. On the other, we need to build more resilience into our social and ecological systems - including ensuring better disaster preparedness, preserving a greater amount of open space and water as a buffer against unforeseen future environmental changes, and managing our forests with defensible space between human settlement and natural preserves. Such practices will improve our capacity to deal not only with fires in the future, but also with many types of natural or human caused disasters.

With some ecological foresight and resolute leadership - and yes, proper funding for a firefighting service - perhaps we can limit the damage of the next, inevitable fire.

Daniel Orenstein is an adjunct lecturer in urban and regional planning at the Technion and a faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.



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