Call the Carmel Fire Murder

If the Carmel disaster turns out to be man-made and if the perpetrators are caught, they should be tried for murder.

The inevitable official inquiry into yesterday's calamitous chain of events in the Carmel disaster will not have to look far to see the structural failures in handling large fires.

It can start by looking at the State Comptroller's 2007 report that castigated the fire service facilities.

Since writing that report, Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has dealt with several weighty matters, including the Boaz Harpaz document and the process of appointing Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant chief of staff. While doing so he became embroiled in another affair - the police commissioner's appointment.

But these matters, which raised such a storm only a day or two ago, paled by comparison to the Carmel disaster. If it turns out to be man-made and if the perpetrators are caught, they should be tried for murder.

The police and prison services, where the victims who died in the bus disaster and their families would have been known to many, were stunned and in mourning yesterday. In a way it was reminiscent of the feeling in the New York police and firefighting services on September 11, 2001, when hundreds of police men and rescue teams came to the World Trade Center towers to save people and perished themselves.

"The firefighting facilities in Israel lack a central command and control system," the comptroller stated in one of the main findings of the probe into the firefighters' performance in the north during the 2006 Lebanon war. The Firefighting and Rescue Services is subordinate to the Interior Ministry except in times of emergency, when it is subordinate to the Home Front Command. The commissioner is incapable of controlling 25 depots, which are subordinate to municipalities and subjected to the graces of local politicians.

The inquiry committee will find it is the latest of numerous committees in the past 35 years. They all recommended setting up a national headquarters. The governments sometimes ignored, sometimes adopted the recommendations, but never implemented them.

Israel has 1,532 firefighters' positions. In 2005 only 1,375 of them were filled, and only 345 of them in the north, which had 40 vehicles instead of the 63 required. The thousands of rocket landings in the north in 2006 should be taken seriously; this could happen again.

"The Firefighters Commission gave priority to urban areas, while Jewish National Fund firefighters handled forest fires," the comptroller wrote.

In 1966 the Firefighters Commission, JNF, the Finance Ministry and Israel Nature and Parks Authority set up a joint fund to finance putting out fires from the air. It is run by the JNF with an annual budget of NIS 4 million, the report says. In the Second Lebanon War eight firefighting planes owned by Chim-Nir were used at the cost of half a million shekels a day.

"A week later, when the (annual ) budget to operate the planes ran out, the fire commissioner ordered them grounded in the midst of the war. Only after the GOC Home Front Commander Yitzhak Gershon intervened was an additional NIS 4 million budget approved," the report says.

Another problem is "a severe shortage of water filling sites for the vehicles in the forested area. Only 2 of 40 planned sites were set up, due to budgetary difficulties."

In the warm season, the treasury thinks it doesn't pay to have firefighting planes on permanent standby. Someone there seems to have calculated that in the long term is it cheaper to endure fires than put them out. A cold calculation that overlooked one little clause: the price in human life.