Israel Ignored Call for System to Predict Fires After Deadly 2010 Blaze

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A fire in the Jerusalem area, this week.
A fire in the Jerusalem area, this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Israel has no system capable of predicting wildfires or determining which direction they will move in, even though the Fire and Rescue Authority defined this as an “urgent and critical” need shortly after the Carmel Forest fire in 2010.

Moreover, while regulations to allow the creation of buffer zones, which experts agree are critical to save lives and prevent fires from spreading, were drafted by the Public Security Ministry back in 2014, neither the regulations nor the necessary funding have yet been approved.

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And if all this weren’t enough, numerous governmental and scientific reports have warned for years that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of fires throughout the Middle East, but these reports have been ignored.

The massive fire that destroyed large swaths of forest in the Jerusalem Hills this week was a burning reminder of Israel’s poor preparedness for wildfires. The fire was gotten under control only Tuesday night, after burning for 52 hours.

And as climate change increases the frequency of heat waves and shortens the rainy season, the number of days in which the risk of wildfires is high will rise significantly. Indeed, this has already been happening; many countries worldwide have suffered massive fires in recent years. Yet Israel has ignored the warnings and failed for years to implement experts’ recommendations on how to minimize the dimensions of future disasters.

“We’re at the height of a severe global climate crisis, a new and threatening era that poses immediate risks,” said Dedi Simchi, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s commissioner. As a result, he warned, disasters “the likes of which we haven’t seen in the past” could erupt “at any moment.”

Climate change has led to an increased number of extremely hot, dry days that are conducive to fires, Simchi noted. But it has also led to more days of extremely heavy rainfall in the winter that could cause lethal floods, he said, and Israel must prepare for both dangers. This means decision makers must rethink their ideas, allocate additional funding and seek to increase regional and international cooperation, including by pooling resources, he added.

A study commissioned by the fire authority predicted that by 2030, the number of high-risk days for wildfires will grow from the current 70 per year to 80. It will then climb to 90 by 2060 and 105 by 2080, it said.

The report was written by Dr. Amir Givati of Tel Aviv University on the basis of data from the European Union’s Copernicus program, which calculates the danger of fires erupting and spreading based on factors such as temperatures, humidity and winds.

The report said that from 1986 to 2019, the risk of fires in the Jerusalem Hills rose by about 10 percent solely due to climate variables, even without accounting for other variables like land use and population growth. The risk that such fires would spread rose by 22 percent during this period, it added.

“One of the most prominent effects of the climate crisis is an increase in the frequency and intensity of forest fires, as we saw this summer in Europe and Siberia,” Givati said. “The number of forest fires in our region is expected to rise significantly.”

Gilad Ostrovsky, who heads the forestry department at Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, said that over the last two years, large fires have become more frequent. Moreover, he said, there are now more fires during the summer, whereas before, the peak fire season was autumn, the tail end of the hot season, when dryness was at its peak.

A firefighter works in the Judean Hills, earlier this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Nir Stav, director of the Israel Meteorological Service, added that on top of causing more hot, dry days, climate change is reducing the number of rainy days in the winter. This further increases the risk of fires.

In May 2013, the Public Security Ministry announced that it had developed a system for predicting the outbreak of fires, their direction and their intensity. But the fire authority soon discovered that in reality, these forecasts were unreliable, so it stopped using this system.

In October 2018, the ministry solicited bids to develop a new prediction system. The Meteorological Service offered to take on the job, but was told that the “operational urgency” of the issue made it impossible to stop the bidding process.

Yet in reality, red tape has dragged the process out for three years, and to this day, no such system exists. Fire authority officials said the system is finally supposed to be ready in another few months, barring additional surprises. But that will be nine years after the need for such a system was defined as “urgent.”

Another important tool in fighting fires is the creation of buffer zones that can prevent fires from spreading. But here too, nothing has been done for years, despite repeated pleas.

Back in December 2014, for instance, the head of the fire authority’s fire safety and investigations department, Haim Tamam, wrote the public security and environment ministers that the Carmel fire in 2010, like other recent fires that had threatened residential communities and necessitated their evacuation, underscored the “urgent need” for measures to protect such communities.

But seven years later, the regulations allowing the creation of buffer zones still haven’t been approved. Nor has the government budgeted the 260 million shekels ($80 million) that implementing these regulations is expected to cost. As the government administration in charge of preparing for climate change wrote in one report, “without the approval of these regulations, it will be hard to ensure that communities are protected.”

Ostrovsky said this week’s fire underscored the need to thin out forests and create buffer zones. But it also requires the development of new forestry tools, warning systems, quicker response times and improved cooperation, he added.

A forest in the Jerusalem area that was burned in a fire, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

KKL-JNF officials said they don’t understand the government’s “foot-dragging” in approving the regulations, but that their organization has created hundreds of buffer zones on its own in recent years.

The organization’s chief scientist, Dr. Doron Merkel, said this isn’t the government’s only failure. “If Israel had a computer system for long-term weather forecasting and an accurate short-term warning system,” he said, it would be able “to respond better and more quickly to extreme climate events.”

Nor are fires the only danger, he warned; long droughts also threaten the forests, especially in the south. “If we had a long-term, high-resolution forecasting system, we could better prepare each forest according to the amount and type of rainfall expected in another 10, 20 and 30 years.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry, which has been pushing the buffer zone regulations for years, said that current minister Tamar Zandberg had discussed the issue with Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev this week in an effort to accelerate their approval and funding. The Public Security Ministry said that Bar-Lev spoke with this week with both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and KKL-JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani and asked them to immediately allocate 40 million shekels for buffer zones.

Though the fire authority is under the Public Security Ministry’s jurisdiction, the final decision on funding rests with the Finance Ministry. That ministry said it has been working with the National Security Council for the past year “to implement a sustainable model for buffer zones.” It also commissioned a study to map the needs.

In recent months, it has been in touch with the fire authority about funding a pilot project for buffer zones in areas that the study concluded were at high risk of fires, the treasury’s statement continued, and the service is soon expected “to send us a funding model, so we can move forward with a solution.”

But despite all these promises of progress, sources who have attended dozens of meetings on the subject over the last decade sounded despairing. “This should have been something this government would approve immediately,” one said. “It’s about human life.”

Prof. Hadas Saaroni, a climatologist from Tel Aviv University, said that three factors influence a fire’s spread. The first is flammable material. Fires don’t spread through tree trunks, but through treetops and vegetation on the forest floor, with the latter being particularly critical, she said.

The second is meteorological conditions, mainly high winds combined with heat and dryness. And the third is topography. Other conditions being equal, fires spread better higher up, where there’s more oxygen, she explained.

Prof. Lea Wittenberg, an expert on forest fires from the University of Haifa, agreed that the quantity of dry biomass is a critical factor, especially when accompanied by strong winds. Therefore, she said, Israel needs to develop a system that can “identify places where the potential for damage is high and deal with them individually. And that’s in addition to a long-term plan for tending to open spaces.”

And given the forecasts of increasing heat and dryness, she warned, “forest fires are only expected to be bigger and more powerful” in the coming years.

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