The images of fires blazing out of control, huge plumes of smoke in the sky and homes burnt to the ground have struck horror in the hearts of many Israelis in recent days. In part, because the scenes are all too familiar.
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It was almost six years ago to the day that Israel suffered its worst natural disaster ever. The fire that erupted in the Carmel Forest in northern Israel on December 2, 2010, lasting four days and claiming 44 lives, remains a national trauma.
About 17,000 Israelis were evacuated from their homes during that disaster, and thousands of acres of forest were destroyed. It took U.S. intervention, in the form of a Boeing 747 Supertanker flown across the Atlantic, to extinguish the last flames.
The fatalities occurred when a bus carrying Israeli Prison Service cadets caught on fire on its way up to evacuate a prison on Mt. Carmel. Among the dead were 37 cadets, three firemen, one civilian, and three police officers, include the first woman ever to command the Haifa police force. Close to 20 countries – among them Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Holland, Egypt, Russia, and Britain – sent firefighting aircraft and crews to Israel to help battle the rapidly spreading flames. Even though peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians had just broken down, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called to offer Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assistance. Both Palestinians and Jordanians sent fire trucks to Israel at the time.
The weather conditions then were remarkably similar to those today, as Shahar Ayalon, Israel’s former fire and rescue commissioner, notes. For that reason, he says, he was not surprised by the outbreak of the latest fires. “You have a combination of drought conditions and dry winds from the east, and this is the result,” he told Haaretz. “It’s to be expected.”
Clearly, Israel had been caught unprepared in 2010. It did not have the manpower or the equipment required to battle a fire of that magnitude. Nor did its command and controls systems operate as they should have. A year-and-a-half after the debacle, a special report by the State Comptroller assigned “special responsibility” to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who at the time was in charge of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, and to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. It stopped short of demanding their dismissal, though. The report also blamed Netanyahu and his Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich for not preparing sufficiently for the eventuality of such a calamity.
According to the findings of the State Comptroller report, Yishai was aware that the Fire and Rescue Service was understaffed and underequipped, yet made no effort to rectify the situation. The report also found that Steinitz had withheld funding from the country’s firefighting forces because they had failed to carry out reforms he demanded.
In wake of the report, the government approved a wide-ranging overhaul of Israel’s fire-fighting services. As part of the reform, a new centralized body, known as the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, was created to replace the existing municipal-run firefighting services. Responsibility for firefighting was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Internal Security. The reform called for recruiting hundreds of new firefighters, purchasing dozens of new fire trucks, establishing a squadron of firefighting aircraft, upgrading communications systems, and setting up a national command and control center.
Ayalon was appointed head of Israel’s firefighting authorities in 2011, not long after the Carmel disaster, and remained in his post until six months ago. During this time, he says, “everything that was promised was fulfilled.” In recent years, according to Ayalon, 800 new firefighters were recruited – almost doubling the size of the force. A squadron of firefighting planes was established, and 20 new fire stations were opened around the country.
Requests made by Israel for international assistance in recent days, he says, should not be interpreted as a lack of preparedness. “It is very common in situations like this that countries request help from one another around the region,” he notes. “There have also been situations where we’ve sent help. During my tenure, in fact, I signed on many treaties that provide for such assistance.”
Three days later, the fires raging around Israel are still not under control. Should this be taken as a sign that the lessons of the Carmel debacle have not fully been learned? Not at all, responds Ayalon. “I believe that if the things we did hadn’t been done, the situation today would have been much worse.”