Jerusalem Area Sees More and More Wildfires, Risking Irrevocable Damage to Nature

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A firefighting plane works to extinguish the flames on Tuesday in the Jerusalem Hills.
A firefighting plane works to extinguish the flames on Tuesday in the Jerusalem Hills.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Tsuba stream bed had been an impassable maze of tall thick shrubbery under the giant pine trees – until the beginning of the week. Today it’s a layer of earth so thick that our shoes sank in it, leaving footprints like astronauts on the moon. Here and there we could still see smoking embers.

A few hours after we left, the fire broke out there again but the Firefighters and Rescue Services said it remained under control.

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Both sides of the stream bed are burned, east of Eitan Mountain. To the west rises Mount Tayasim, with the Air Force monument on its peak. Both mountains are almost completely burned. But the difference is great. Mount Eitan was to a large extent man-made forest, in other words, covered with pine trees. Much of Mount Tayasim is a nature reserve, preserving natural woodland. It was mostly known for its old arbutus trees with their red-flaking bark. On Wednesday the pine trees on Mount Eitan looked like blackened, unsteady electricity poles and the arbutus trees on Mount Tayasim looked like burned sculptures in a dystopian movie.

The fire had reached the outskirts of the Ramat Raziel and Givat Ye’arim communities and the Eitanim Hospital. On the edge of the slope consumed by the flames is a black-and-white wilderness and right beside it, where the flames were stopped, is a green, untouched forest. The mass mobilization of Israel’s firefighters saved the residents’ houses from disaster.

A tour along the huge fire areas in the Jerusalem hills this week finds devastated sites, beloved hiking trails that have turned into soot and ashes. Soon most of these paths will be closed for several years, to enable the forest to recover.

Blazes in the Jerusalem Hills, Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But the fire also uncovered the dilemmas in managing nature in Jerusalem’s hills. Usually ecologists and nature preservation activists are unfazed by seasonal fires, maintaining that it’s part of the natural occurrences in the Land of Israel for tens of thousands of years.

The Mediterranean forest is a tough system that knows how to recover from long droughts and fires. The seeds wait for the rain, the trees change the burned branches for new ones and the wildlife, from insects to deer, return to the area in search of food.

But maybe this principle was true in the old world. Today, the fire is added to other threats to open areas like road building, construction, invasive species and worse. When fires that used to break out once in 20 or 50 years suddenly occur every few years due to climate change, and meet earth and trees that have dried out in extreme heat for months with no rain, they could disrupt the balance and cause irrevocable damage to nature.

One of the problems is that the fires encourage the pine trees’ reproduction. The tree ignites and burns quickly, but its seeds are tough and survive the fire and after a winter or two a low, very dense layer of pines covers the earth.

If allowed to continue growing the burned areas will turn into overcrowded woods of weak, thin-trunked trees that will become a powder keg in future fires.

Fires in Sho'eva near Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The arbutus trees and other species of Mediterranean forest trees – oak, pistacia, Mediterranean buckthorn and others – ignite slowly, burn slowly and sometimes survive the flames thanks to their durable roots.

Amir Balaban from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel predicts that in a few weeks, the trees will sprout new branches. However, they may find themselves in competition with the young pine trees that will move into the area.

In a fire some 25 years ago, Jewish National Fund workers had to uproot pine trees that invaded the reserve, thus enabling the arbutus trees to regain their rightful place. They will have to do it again.

Despite the encroaching development, the Jerusalem hills abound with livestock – from giant fallow deer that were released to the wild to deer, fowl, reptiles and insects. Mount Tayasim, for example, was a hub for butterfly aficionados looking for the magnificent two-tailed pasha butterfly, which lives on the arbutus trees. A solitary specimen was indeed spotted hovering over the area going down from Mount Tayasim, but its population no doubt suffered a deadly blow in the fire.

He says he met partridges, which can only fly short distances, whose legs were burned from landing on burning cinders. He saw a couple of snake eagles flying around in confusion, perhaps because they had lost their chick in the flames.

Burnt hills in Jerusalem, August 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

“It was the week in which the chicks were supposed to fly, I don’t know if they made it out of the inferno,” he says.

The scorched area looks empty of wild animals. In the unburnt part of Tsuba stream we see two partridges that got away, a starred agama lizzard crossing the path and on the Mount Tayasim slope a couple of deer are fleeing an oncoming buggy. We continue up the mountain and reenter the burned area. Balaban says the destruction wasn’t total.

“The seeds are partly resistant to fire, the ants collect them, the partridges eat them, the deer eat them, they won’t go out of circulation,” he says. Indeed, at the top of the mountain, among the burned arbutus trees, a swarm of ants emerges from a nest that was preserved, despite the fire, deep under the ashes.

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