An area of about 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of a nature reserve near Tel Aviv was destroyed on Tuesday in a fire ignited by a smoke grenade thrown during Israeli army training.
The blaze, which destroyed about a third of the Hadom Hashomron Nature Reserve – one of the most important reserves in the area – was only fully extinguished six hours after it began.
According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Israel Defense Force exercises that were conducted in the area violated procedures designed to prevent forest fires, and the army hadn’t provided firefighting equipment as required. The IDF confirmed that the exercises hadn’t been conducted according to the rules and that the incident is under investigation.
The authority said that in addition to the 20 rangers called to the scene, six firefighting planes and 10 teams of firefighters were deployed.
“This was a fire that could have been prevented, and that’s very frustrating,” said Roy Strauss, the director of the authority’s Sharon district.
“Coordinating training and arranging proper firefighting equipment could have prevented the enormous damage and harm to nature. When I arrived at the scene, after the fire broke out, I discovered that in violation of procedures, the soldiers in the training exercise had come without firefighting gear. That allowed the fire to spread quickly,” he said.
The authority said it has appealed to the IDF to investigate the incident in order to prevent it from recurring. It also reported that firefighting aircraft had been focused on protecting oil wells in the area, which had delayed their attending to the fire itself.
The Hadom Hashomron Nature Reserve is home to vegetation that is typical of the transitional area between Israel's coastal plain and the Samarian Hills. It is also one of the most important sites for sustaining Israel’s population of mountain gazelles. The animals can flee from fires, but the destruction of their habitat, where all the vegetation has been destroyed, will deprive them of an essential part of their living space.
The incident comes shortly after the publication of the 2022 edition of the State of Nature in Israel report, which was issued last month. In the section on forest fires, the report noted that nature reserves with the greatest frequency of fires were those used for army training. That primarily includes the Golan Heights, the Gilboa region, the Lachish Hills and the Samarian Foothills.
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The report noted that the army had taken several steps in recent years to reduce the number of fires and pointed out the decline in the amount of blazes, particularly in the Lachish region. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s blaze demonstrates the extent to which the exercises continue to inflict damage.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said the nature reserve is "at the heart of the largest and most important ecological corridor in central Israel" and said that "very serious damage has been caused to a functioning ecosystem, at the highest level," adding that it joins the demand for an investigation.
In response, the IDF said an initial probe has revealed that "activities conducted in violation of directives" caused the fire and that it "views this as a serious case and is investigating it. ... Serious measures against those involved will be taken and procedures will be refined."
"The IDF attaches great importance to the environment, to nature and to wildlife and regrets that the incident that occurred," it said.