After Fires in North, Everything Is Black

After two hectic days of putting out fires, Galilee forest ranger Ophir Gamliel was both drained and depressed.

"Everywhere I look I see black," he said. His clothes and car were full of soot.

Vast stretches of nature have turned black after two days of heavy forest fires in Israel's north. Jewish National Fund foresters believe 250 acres of forest were lost in the flames.

Gamliel, whose beat is the Upper Galilee region, believes that the fires were started by arsonists.

"It's suspicious how fires started at the Biriya Forest, east of Safed, precisely when all the personnel and resources were mobilized to put out fires in Amud Stream and Nebi Yosha," he said. "This was a move meant to trick the firefighters and cause maximal environmental damage."

"Arsonists are becoming more sophisticated every year," Gamliel says. "They learn the terrain, they study the winds, and they also study how the firefighting forces are working."

And he adds, as more fires occur, they encourage more and more arson.

This week of fires returned the Galilee to its dismal state from three years ago, when Katyusha rockets caused fires all across Israel's north, Gamliel says.

Currently, police have no suspects in custody; they released a man from Safed who had been arrested on Wednesday. But the fire at Biriya Forest appears to have been an accident, caused by a man cutting metal with a blowtorch near a military base, as the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish National Fund found in a joint investigation.

Investigators initially suspected the fire was arson.

Wildlife was hit hard by the fires, Gamliel says: Turtles that managed to escape the flames were run over by cars as they crossed roads. Jackals near Biriya Forest were trapped by the flames and were burnt alive. And gazelles that escaped were seen roaming Safed neighborhoods, exhausted, hungry and thirsty.

On Wednesday, two separate blazes in Kafr Brata and Kafr Ara forced police to evacuate 13 nearby homes. Route 65 was closed for hours due to smoke, police said.

Another fire broke out in an open area near Road 90, between Tel Hai and Metula, leading police to close roads due to thick smoke. Firefighters, assisted by planes, arrived as the fire advanced toward Kfar Giladi.

The northern district director of the Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authority, Yigal Ben Ari, said there were major fires around the Hilazon, Amud and Kadesh streams.

"This is a difficult time," said Yair Elkayam, operations officer in the Upper Galilee and Golan Height Fire Brigade. "In many cases the fires are obviously being caused by arson. You can see it by how they start in several places all at once."

Elkayam said fire brigades were on alert and yesterday were working "round the clock."