The Age of Mega-fires: Jerusalem Blaze Is a Wake-up Call for Israel

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The fire near Jerusalem, yesterday
The fire near Jerusalem, yesterdayCredit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Jerusalem Hills are used to forest fires – even intense, raging fires – but an official who has been familiar with the area and its climate conditions for decades said this fire was something exceptional.

Sunday in the Jerusalem Hills was a standard hot summer day; somewhat dry and with strong winds, but nothing unusual. Nevertheless, the fire behaved in an unprecedented way. “Flames of 50 meters, red clouds, it looked like the end of the world. In Ramat Raziel you saw a fire whirl, where the fire creates the wind itself, these are things we never saw in the past,” said an official involved in putting out the fire. Intense forest fires like this one occur mostly when the weather is especially dry and strong winds blow.

The reason for the fire's unexpected behavior is still unclear, but tools that might help experts study this phenomenon are already in use around the world. Countries like Canada, Australia and the United States are using an index called the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI), which combines meteorological data, such as temperature, humidity and wind speeds with data on the state of the vegetation on the ground.

Unprecedented forest fire in the hills of Jerusalem

One of the most important factors in calculating the index is the amount of vegetation on the ground – its biomass – and its dryness. A high index number means a serious danger of powerful fires. The greater the mass of vegetation and the dryer it is, the greater the risk of fire. Such indexes have not been used in Israel so far, but recent changes indicate these indexes have reached dangerous levels.

Ironically, increased awareness about nature preservation is what led to the accumulation of biomass in the country in very large amounts. In the last three years, Israel has enjoyed two wet winters: 2018-19 and 2019-20, which led to a great amount of vegetation in the forests. But after that came a relatively dry winter followed by very hot and dry spring and summer. The long and harsh heat waves of the spring and summer brought the vegetation to extreme levels of dryness, which turned it into a barrel of explosives waiting for a spark.

Experts say that one of the problems is high nighttime temperatures. During normal summer climate in the Jerusalem Hills, the temperatures drop quite steeply at night. The coolness increases the relative humidity and allows the vegetation to recover a little from the daytime heat. But recent heat waves have been characterized by hot and dry nights too, which caused the vegetation to dry out, increasing the risk of wildfires. “It seems to me that the relatively small fires that we were used to facing, now develop into huge fires even on days that are not considered dangerous,” said the official.

Couple watch the Jersalem hills fire from their home in the area

Dr. Yagil Osem of the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute explained the delicate situation causing these fires, “We see large  accumulation of biomass on one hand, and dryness on the other. Because it is so hot, the plants are forced to evaporate water to cool themselves and the vegetative materials becomes very dry and very flammable, then with a little help from the wind and topographical angles, the fire becomes very powerful.” 

To deal with the fires in this new climatological era, Israel –like dozens of other countries around the world – will need to change the way it thinks and acts about climate change. Since the forest fire on Mount Carmel in 2010, the firefighting services have improved their professional capabilities and received better resources, but these days it's simply not enough. Most of the training Israeli firefighters go through is in urban firefighting, but in recent years they've found themselves battling more and more fires in open areas. On top of that, there is dire need to increase the squadron of firefighting aircraft than currently in use. But most importantly, there needs to be a change in how open areas are managed. Regrettably, this will have to include a massive thinning out of forests, mostly around residential communities.

The best way to protect communities from forest fires is to set up buffer zones around them. In other words, to significantly thin out the vegetation and create a wide strip around the communities. The goal is to prevent the fire from reaching homes – and also to allow firefighters to stand between the fire and the community and protect it. For example, effective buffer zones were constructed around the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The firefighting law, passed in 2012 in the wake of the Mount Carmel fire disaster, stated that regulations will be set for the construction of  buffer zones, but the ordinances were never written and most communities in Israel remain unprotected. The reason is money – the government would have to budget a few hundreds of millions of shekels to build these buffer zones, and tens of millions of shekels every year to maintain them.

There is also a need to manage open spaces better. For example, grazing in forests should be encouraged to thin out the vegetation and trees, which will create space to build strategic buffer zones to limit the fire in contained sections of the forest. “The point is to break continuous areas, to build buffer zones and maintain them exemplarily,” said Osem. “We want to create a situation in which the fire can't run from one basin to another. It’s an investment in firefighting expertise, but firstly it's about managing the vegetation.”

Burnt car in the hills of Jerusalem after forest fire

Right-wing politicians and some journalists like to chew over what caused the fires, and to throw out accusations – some vaguer than others – about intentional arson and the national motives behind it. And so you have a simple and well-known enemy. One that does not need complicated calculations of indexes of humidity and the state of the vegetation. This is a direct continuation of the unfounded claims of an “arson Intifada” by politicians during a wave of fires in 2016.

The origin of these claims stems from a common phrase used by firefighter officers that “the fire was caused by human factors.” But That's like saying that car crashes are caused by human factors. It’s obvious. Israel does not have spontaneous combustion caused by lightning or volcanic activity. All fires are always man-made. But this does not necessarily mean the cause is always arson. Experience teaches us that under certain climatic conditions, arsonists are not needed for a fire to spread out of control.

According to conservative estimates, about 11 million cigarette butts are thrown away outside of garbage cans daily, that’s about 7,600 cigarette butts every minute. Other causes of fires exist too; careless welders, bonfires not put out properly, live fire in military training zones, poorly maintained cars, and more. Dozens of small fires break out every day that end in a passerby stomping out the coals, or in a rapid response by firefighters. But under the right conditions, every such fire has the potential to burn up thousands of acres.

Jerusalem hills, the morning after unprecedented forest fire

A quick look at the worldwide map of fires shows that fires broke out everywhere in the Mediterranean Basin last week: Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Lebanon and Algeria are just some of the countries in our region that were forced to face huge fires in recent weeks. As in Israel, there are some in these countries who looked for the immediate and better known suspects than the climate crisis. In Turkey they blamed the Kurds, and in Algeria the Berber minority.

The sad truth is that we are standing at the edge of a new and gloomy era. An era in which many things will change – the temperatures, the frequency of flooding, the selection of fruits found in the markets, the price of commodities, the possibility of spending time outside the home, and of course, the landscape of the open spaces around us. It's time we to take a good look at the changes to our environment, while we still can.

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