Ten Years After Israel’s Worst Forest Fire, Mount Carmel Awaits Its Next Blaze

The place is blooming again, but the heat waves, low humidity, high winds and long dry spells of climate change mean prevention is a must

A bird flying above the greenery on Mount Carmel, November 2020.
A bird flying above the greenery on Mount Carmel, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The first narcissi and cyclamens of the winter recently bloomed in Mount Carmel National Park, and hikers seeking escape from the coronavirus could be spotted on the trails through the thick greenery. Exactly 10 years ago, the park near Haifa was ravaged by the worst forest fire in Israel’s history, but it’s hard to see any signs of it, even if the roster of the flora has changed a bit.

Still, as the climate crisis worsens, the park will face further threats, including more frequent fires like the one in December 2010. That blaze raged for four days, killing 44 people and damaging 25,000 dunams (6,180 acres), on top of the destruction caused by smaller fires over the previous two decades.

A decade ago, the government convened an expert panel that drafted and oversaw a plan to rehabilitate the park. Most of the work was done by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s forestry department, since it’s responsible for the bulk of the damaged land. The Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund is responsible for the remaining 15 percent.

Not all the dead trees were removed; some that fell were left to provide organic nourishment to enrich the soil. Others that remained standing were left to provide perches for birds. The area’s vulture population has recovered to at least what it was before the fire, while wolves and fallow deer roam the ridges again.

A view from Mount Carmel toward Kibbutz Beit Oren, which was badly damaged in the 2010 Carmel fire, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Overall, the forest is now green – sometimes even too green. Human intervention is needed mainly to prevent the spread of pine trees, which burn quickly and disperse their seeds as they burn. These kernels then grow rapidly into young trees, which if not thinned out might take over the territory, leaving it vulnerable to further fires.

“We want there to be pines here, but mainly on the hilltops, and for the landscape in the rest of the area to be mainly Mediterranean forests, woodlands and scrub,” said Natan Elbaz, the nature authority’s forestry chief. “We've collected the seedlings from much of the territory, but we have to continue doing this over time. Only in privately owned areas and hard-to-reach places have we not done this yet.”

The seedlings are collected frequently, by hand, but most remain in place, peeking up from the other vegetation.

The KKL-JNF also gathers these shoots. Omri Boneh, head of the organization’s northern district, said that to help the forest recover, the KKL-JNF has also planted woodland trees, restored ancient agricultural terraces discovered after the fire and planted fruit trees on them.

Pine trees, which burn easily, growing on Mount Carmel, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Cattle play their role

The changes in the landscape can be clearly seen near Horvat Rakit and Kibbutz Beit Oren, some of whose homes were completely destroyed in the fire. The pines have almost completely disappeared, replaced by shorter vegetation, mainly Mediterranean forest trees such as terebinth and common oak.

The one exception is in privately owned areas, where the nature authority can’t operate. There, pines have again proliferated, and many dead trees remain.

But even Mediterranean forests, woodlands and scrub need thinning to reduce the risk of fire – and also to let light penetrate, which is essential for other plants to grow. In the absence of herbivorous wildlife, the authority uses cattle herds belonging to residents of nearby towns like Isfiya and Daliat al-Carmel for this purpose.

Strollers on Mount Carmel, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Elbaz said goats are more efficient, but it’s hard to find owners willing to bring their flocks to the Carmel, and also to provide the infrastructure for them. “Grazing is a problem we haven’t managed to overcome, not in the Carmel and not in other areas,” he said.

Prof. Avi Perevolotsky of the Agricultural Research Organization (more commonly known as the Volcani Institute), who headed the expert panel that prepared the rehabilitation plan, isn’t surprised.

“Herding animals in a country with a modern economy is an unprofitable business,” he said. “Without substantial subsidies, there are no profits, so there will be no animals. The European Union decided on very generous subsidies so such activity could exist.”

The state has strived to regulate the activity of Bedouin herders, he added, but financial support for these efforts, essential to prevent fires, is also needed.

A path running through Mount Carmel, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Investing in prevention

The 2010 fire also damaged the soil in the Mount Carmel park, but it too has recovered.

The earth sciences journal CATENA recently published research by the University of Haifa into hydrological and soil changes in the Oren Stream following the fire. It showed that the number of floods that swept away soil doubled in the years after the fire compared to those before, even when rainfall was half or less than during pre-2010 floods. The reason: The fire’s damage to the vegetation eroded the soil’s stability.

But this situation wasn’t permanent. The status quo was largely restored after about four years, as vegetation rallied and covered the soil again.

One lasting change, Perevolotsky said, is that before the fire, the nature authority didn’t consider itself responsible for managing and caring for the forest. Now, however, it does routine maintenance to prevent fires, both on Mount Carmel and elsewhere.

The authority is even adapting firefighting capabilities to the needs of specific areas by collecting the necessary equipment and mounting it on wagons. This way, the gear can be brought deep into the forest quickly and put out fires in their infancy.

Firefighting equipment at the ready in case there's a fire on Mount Carmel, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Another key measure is widening the paths that serve as buffers to slow a fire’s spread and provide access to firefighters. The authority has also created new paths and thinned the trees more extensively in certain areas, mainly near populated areas. But maintaining these paths will require a lot of money over the years.

“The government invested money in upgrading its firefighting apparatus and tanker planes,” Boneh said. “It should realize that investing in firefighting isn’t enough; it’s important also to invest in prevention, which includes grazing and buffer paths – especially given that in the future we can expect more huge fires.”

The fear of massive fires stems largely from climate change. The National Fire and Rescue Authority says large fires occur under conditions of low humidity and high winds following a long dry spell. This combination is expected to happen more frequently in the Mediterranean as climate change worsens.

One example is the fire that badly damaged the Ben Shemen Forest last year. Temperatures of 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) were recorded, with humidity at just 9 percent.

Natan Elbaz, the forestry chief at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, at Mount Carmel, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Preparations for future fires will also have to include greater investment in protecting communities near forests.

“All the tools we use today are effective for normal fires,” Boneh said. “But when firestorms start during periods of high winds and low humidity, sparks will fly for hundreds of meters and cause chains of fires over large distances.”

These blazes will have much more energy, so firefighting capabilities will be limited. “This should lead to the understanding that we have to focus on better protecting homes and addressing the flammable materials in them,” he added. “If there are roofs with leaves and needles on them, the sparks that reach them will cause the homes to burn.”

Thus some people will have to opt for a sparser landscape, not the trees and bushes they’re used to seeing from their windows. The view won’t be as pretty, but it will be far safer.