Israel Failed to Implement Firefighting Plan in Wake of Carmel Disaster

Experts recommended buffer zones between homes and brush, but plan has been sitting on interior minister’s desk since 2014.

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Firefighters fighting wildfires in Haifa, November 24, 2016.
Firefighters fighting wildfires in Haifa, November 24, 2016.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

A plan to create buffer zones in woodland communities has been sitting on the interior minister’s desk for more than two years, awaiting approval. One firefighting official told Haaretz that if the plan had been implemented, it is almost certain that the damage in places like Zichron Yaakov this week would have been prevented.

The plan was prepared in wake of findings from the Carmel forest fire of 2010, which left 44 people dead. After the recommendations of the committee investigating the disaster were received, another panel of professionals in the field was formed to propose ways to protect communities from forest fires.

The professional panel’s recommendations and guidelines were submitted for the interior minister’s approval in 2014. The committee decided to adopt a model used in Spain and California that calls for the creation of a 76-meter-wide (250-foot) buffer zone from the line of houses to the line of brush, divided into two parts: A 26-meter-wide strip closest to the houses, in which the number of trees is massively trimmed to just five per dunam (0.25 acres). This strip would also include a wide gravel road for the passage of firefighting vehicles if needed.

In the second part of the buffer zone, which is 50 meters wide, there must be 5 meters between treetops, and branches are to be trimmed so that they reach no higher than 3 meters. In addition, fire hydrants are to be installed at specific intervals so they can be accessed when needed.

The idea is that if a forest fire takes hold, it will diminish when it reaches the 50-meter strip, and by the time it reaches the strip closest to the houses, firefighters will easily be able to bring it under control.

The committee’s plan was submitted to the interior minister, who is responsible for the country’s firefighting system. The guidelines it laid out were also presented to the Interior Ministry and Environmental Protection Ministry.

The plan was discussed a number of times in the Interior Ministry. The professionals emphasized that the recommendations had to be implemented because they arose from the findings of a state commission of inquiry.

The cost of implementing the plan is estimated at 200 million shekels ($51.6 million). This budget was supposed to come partly from the relevant ministries and partly from the firefighting budget.

But the Interior Ministry has essentially ignored the recommendations and the plan, focusing instead on equipping firefighting planes, fire engines, fire stations and firefighters – all things to be utilized when a fire has already taken hold.

Firefighting officials say the entire aspect of fire prevention and fire safety has been neglected, and not received adequate attention and funding, as the Carmel inquiry found.

The firefighting official told Haaretz that the damage in Zichron Yaakov “was preventable. And if this plan would have been put in place, we wouldn’t have gotten to a situation where dozens of homes burned to the ground.”

Another official added that the plan “would have cost 200 million shekels to protect all the communities in Israel. Without knowing the extent of the damage we saw yesterday, I’d say that what happened in Zichron Yaakov alone could easily reach that amount.”

The Public Security Ministry did not comment before press time.

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