The Fire, and the Next Time

In the context of the Carmel fire, there is another side: the idiocy of putting a prison for security prisoners in a high-risk fire zone with a single, narrow evacuation route, Route 721.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has generated high expectations for the report on the 2010 Carmel fire disaster. These expectations include new standards of responsibility for high-ranking officials, including the prime minister and members of his cabinet, to the point of rocking the political establishment.

This tack is justified and deserves support. But not when it comes to the next level down, the executive level - specifically the Northern District police commander at the time, Shimon Koren. Misplaced criticism could do an injustice to him, and by extension to the institution of the State Comptroller's Office. This in turn could detract from the credibility of the entire report and force the comptroller into a defensive position on the factual level with regard to the support structure underpinning the report's conclusions. Attaching the outrageous label "operational failure" to the events would likely turn out to be a critical failure, in both senses of the term.

Authorities working to clear dead trees from the site of the deadly 2010 Carmel fire.Credit: Hagai Fried

The auditors from the State Comptroller's Office are experts in government and public administration, but not in performance under conditions of uncertainty. Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Or, chief of security in the comptroller's office, knows about being in charge of a security incident when he examines the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces (including the Home Front Command and its firefighting services ). He speaks the same language as a commander like Koren, and not only because they both served in the Golani Brigade. Due to internal battles in the State Comptroller's Office - battles that are similar in principle to those battles hurting the performance of the very bodies being audited - the Israel Police is not part of the State Comptroller's defense establishment division. This makes sense when the issue is wiretapping, but not in the case of an event that is warlike in essence, such as the Carmel fire disaster.

In its current configuration, the audit is liable to run into difficulty distinguishing between three different levels - those of war, campaign and battle; each strategically, operatively and tactically. Wars are won before the first shot is fired, or before the first match is lit. The Israeli government was responsible for laying the groundwork for victory in the war of fire, both in thought and in action, over a period of years. This was expressed clearly in budgetary allocations, purchases, equipment and training. But in the context of the Carmel fire, there was another side: the idiocy of putting a prison for security prisoners in a high-risk fire zone with a single, narrow evacuation route, Route 721.

The result of the government's faulty preparation for war was the campaign whose command was assigned to Koren. The secure evacuation of 300 Palestinian prisoners from Damon Prison was a necessary military and humanitarian measure. Had the prison gone up in flames or been filled with smoke while the prisoners were inside, under Israeli responsibility, the resultant "Damon Massacre" would have engulfed Israel and the region in riots and clashes. The same would have occurred had a bus filled with prisoners heading out of Damon been burned.

The battle for the bend in Route 721 was within the campaign that was inside the war. It took the lives of 38 prison warders, three police officers and three firefighters from the Emek 9 company - 44 people who died to prevent a "Damon disaster." Mere inches or seconds in either direction - outside the walls of fire or within - kept Koren and Regional Commander Roni Atia from joining them. Although Koren is responsible for his decisions and the actions of his subordinates, the disaster occurred despite his actions, not because of them. No auditor or executive could have performed better than he did on that day, under such difficult natural and man-made conditions.

The new Fire and Rescue Service Commander, Shahar Ayalon, is attempting to do what cabinet members and their ministries did not do prior to December 2010. His approach is both broad and deep, and almost revolutionary. He is not training for the last disaster. He is less worried about the forests - assuming they are not damaged by property or living things - than he is about the next disaster, which could be ignited inside a bus crawling up the hills to Jerusalem, in a high-rise or in a highway tunnel. The deployment of aerial monitoring, coordination and control has improved response flexibility. But the firefighting squadron - of whose establishment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has boasted, and whose composition he imposed - has already admitted to an expensive failure: Two permanently grounded aircraft were returned to the manufacturer to have their skis removed. The idea of buying a supertanker firefighting aircraft came in for the most mockery. It is much less efficient than the rapid sorties of light planes, and the crash-test dummies flattened during testing which proved the supertanker's heavy cargo could kill firefighters on the ground below.

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