Israel Fire: How Netanyahu's Bigger, 'Better' Firefighting Planes Did More Harm Than Good

The chapter in the next State Comptroller’s report about the Israel fire has already written itself, with Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to establish a costly, new firefighting squadron that missed the target.

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Israel fire: A plane battles a fire in Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016.
Israel fire: A plane battles a fire in Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016.Credit: Ariel Schalit, AP

There’s no point being wise after the fact. The warnings were there, and were updated again after pretentious plans were supposedly put in place. The results are scorched into Israel’s towns and hillsides. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was apportioned the major responsibility for the lack of preparedness of Israel’s firefighting services during the deadly Mount Carmel fire in 2010 by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, wasted the following six years in fitful empty gestures. Who will he blame now, what will he boast about, as he stands like a beggar asking for help from our neighbors?

After the previous failure, which he tried to pin on Ariel Sharon, Tzipi Livni and anyone else he could, Netanyahu pointed skywards and announced the establishment of a squadron of firefighting planes. A contract with Elbit included the purchase of 14 planes for tens of millions of shekels, the hiring of crews (with extra personnel to allow for vacations and absences due to reserve duty) and the establishment of an administrative infrastructure.

The multicolored pyrotechnics were impressive. The planes were yellow, the fire retardants red, the saluting officers were dressed in blue, and the burning vegetation was green, leaving behind scorched earth in black. Only the fires were unimpressed. The flying fire services were a failure, but what did it matter? The main thing was that the new service, recently transferred to the police, looked like a success story. The squadron was proof of the determined action taken by the first person to identify its necessity, coming in the wake of pressure exerted by one of that fire’s widows, Nava Boker, who joined the Likud party’s Knesset faction as Sara Netanyahu’s new friend (a friendship that has since fizzled out after Boker was suspected of supporting Netanyahu’s archenemy Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz).

An expert in aerial firefighting services said that before the squadron was established in 2011, houses burned down only in the largest fires, such as the Carmel one, which happened once a decade. “Since the squadron was set up houses burn down in every small fire, as in Kiryat Tivon, the Jerusalem Corridor, and other locations. The current one in Zichron Ya’akov occurred on two small hills, where a few thousand residents live, yet dozens of homes were damaged.” The squadron worked well when it wasn’t really needed and was shown to be deficient when help from the heavens was what was required. Even if this causal effect is an exaggeration meant to drive home a point, trees die in silence while residents cry out bitterly. Relatively small damage in a residential community, in which every victim may lose his entire world, even without fatalities, has more impact than major damage to nature. When winds are so powerful, as in the present season, and when waves are too high to enable scooping up of water, the whole aerial circus is gone with the wind.

It seems illogical. More and newer planes, better organization with more senior officers and the result is worse? What happened, and how did the pilots of spray planes that were used for firefighting until 2010 know that this would happen?

The answer is two-fold: operating the firefighting squadron and not utilizing the spray plane pilots.

The pilots of this squadron risk their lives, but no more so than their peers on the ground who take risks whenever they enter burning and smoke­-filled locations. However, personal courage is no substitute for statesman-like wisdom. Pilots say that the army or police planes, although smaller than the super-tankers, are too big for the job. They fly straight and horizontally, dropping their loads from too high up, without impacting the fire. If the corrosive substances they drop hits houses, these need to be demolished later.

With the establishment of the new squadron, spray plane pilots were taken off their supplementary job of firefighting. Their small and nimble planes with their diving and climbing abilities allowed the dispersal of fire retardants much closer to the target, allowing them to attack fires that larger planes could not tackle.

“In the past” said an expert, “houses didn’t burn since spray planes came down low, nipping the fires in the bud. It’s not the amount of water or retardant that’s important, but the accuracy of hitting the right spots. Aerial firefighting used to cost 5 million shekels a year ($1.25 million), without the price of retardants. Now, with 14 designated planes, the costs are 10 times higher and houses are burning.”

Another pilot added that the squadron’s landing strip was not usable this time and no emergency site had been prepared. This made the link to the air force meaningless.

Spray plane pilots had no funds for training or for fire retardants. One company had three of its planes in maintenance, but its other four were never called in to help, even though their pilots volunteered to aid and could have been put to good use.

A veteran civilian pilot has been arguing for years that in certain regions and in windy seasons at the end of the summer, aerial reconnaissance, even unmanned, is necessary for spotting fires. Sensors are available, and someone who can detect a missile launch in Iran could detect a match being lit on the Carmel. This pilot was surprised to hear live fire exercises this week in the Carmel region, since this could have easily set off a large fire. The army has limited these exercises on hot days, but not when there are strong winds.

This all needs improvement, particularly in recruiting spray plane pilots, whose absence in firefighting since 2010 has made things worse. This was a typical Israeli folly, belatedly fixed through some improvisation, through personal contacts. Something Netanyahu didn’t do over six years was done through three phone calls which finally resulted in the mobilization of these pilots. They will join the fray on Friday. This chapter in the next State Comptroller’s report has written itself.

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