Fighting Back the Flames in Israel's North

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Some 24 kilometers from the center of Haifa, in the middle of a nature reserve, is a place that could have been one of Israel's more luxurious towns. On paper, Beit Oren had everything it needed in order to become a hot real estate destination - located close to an urban center, but fulfilling the Israeli dream of a home in the countryside. But in practice, Beit Oren is one of the country's most underdeveloped places.

It's been two years since the largest fire in Israel's history wiped out 30,000 dunams of the Carmel forest, and Beit Oren, which was partly destroyed in the blaze, is no better off than the open space that surrounds it - a far cry from how it used to be.

A visit to the Carmel forest doesn't leave one with the impression that this is a disaster area. Someone coming from the Tel Aviv metropolis in search of a bit of fresh air and greenery will certainly find it here. But a significant portion of the forests on the way to Beit Oren are bare, as if someone had dumped acid on them that ate their foliage. In some places, you see bare tree trunks topped with caps of green, but experts say these trees are dying and ultimately can be expected to fall.

Within Beit Oren itself, there are no signs of the destruction wreaked by the fire, but anyone familiar with the kibbutz knows it looks nothing like it did before the disaster. The residents whose houses were destroyed are now living in a neighborhood of trailers that was quickly erected on the far side of the kibbutz. Residents' hope that the fire would help them solve their real estate crunch - the kibbutz lacks land because it is situated in the middle of a nature reserve - did not pan out. They still haven't received building permits to erect permanent homes. As kibbutz business manager Eyal Pollack says, "Beit Oren's main problem is the master plan, which does not allow for construction. There was a feeling that the fire would expedite things, but it hasn't happened. As of this month, the mobile homes will be considered illegal construction. Families that want to build homes cannot do so. As far as kibbutz members are concerned, nothing has happened over the past two years."

There hasn't been any commercial recovery, either.

"Things certainly are not better than they were before the fire," says Pollack. "We might be approaching where we were in 2010. For the Chalet events hall, this past year was the most difficult of the past 15 years. The local bike shop is in dire straits. How much can you bike around here when everything is burnt? The local hotel is also shutting down rooms. It's true that the fire drew tourists over the past year, but ultimately people don't want to spend their weekends in a place that's burnt. Currently the hotel is losing half a million shekels a year, and it needs help to become something similar to [Isrotel's nearby luxury spa resort] Carmel Forest."

Yael Atir, who has been running Beit Oren's spa for the past 12 years, says her business is in trouble. "The place's reputation for being green and beautiful has been damaged, to a large extent due to the media, which wiped Beit Oren from the public consciousness. I'm still getting two calls a day from people asking, 'Didn't you burn down?' I don't want to think about how many people aren't calling. Immediately after the fire, I contacted our customers and the place was packed for three weeks with people who came to support us. But revenues have dropped significantly."

Atir is launching a new venture - a tour company called Himalaya focusing on challenging treks. "I'm done dealing with the fire. I want to move on," she says.

Five-year rehabilitation plan

Other locales in the Carmel forest are in even greater dire straits, since they made their living off the woods surrounding them. The forest won't recover anytime soon: Of the NIS 200 million that local authorities requested for rehabilitation, they received only NIS 55 million, and even that has been delayed. On the ground, things are advancing slowly. There are still many burnt tree carcasses that need to be cleared out, and 16 of the trails through the Carmel forest are still closed due to debris and other safety issues stemming from the risk of falling trees.

"Over the past two years, we've been pruning intensively," says Dudi Weiner, the Carmel district manager for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Ninety percent of the burnt territory is within his district. "We focused on areas around urban centers and important sites, and next summer we'll start repairing roads. But there haven't been major changes on the ground. At this time of year, the weeds are flourishing, which makes it seem like everything is green, but that aside, the ecological disaster is still very evident.

"We have a five-year plan to rehabilitate the land, but even in three or four years, the place will still look like it does today," he adds. "Many of the burnt trees were 90 or 100 years old, which means it'll take 40 to 50 years for things to look the way they did before the fire. We're seeing some renewal among pines and oaks, as well as some of the wildlife that was killed or fled, although most of the animals are kept away by the lack of brush to hide in."

As few pines as possible

The parks authority's general policy is to track the recovery without actually intervening, but in the case of the Carmel forest its policy is different, and parks officials are seeking to change the nature of the forest in order to prevent another such fire. The oaks and pistacias burned much less seriously than the other trees, and have shown a better propensity to recover.

"We hope the forest will contain as few pine trees as possible, with the exception of Jerusalem and Eastern pines, which we want to preserve," says Weiner. "We want to see oaks and pistacias. So we're digging up the millions of pine saplings that sprouted from seeds sown by the burnt trees. Otherwise, we'll get exactly what we had before the fire."

The intent to change the forest's composition is delaying the rehabilitation, since pines sprout much more quickly than oaks or pistacias. Furthermore, removing pine saplings from 30,000 dunams of forest space is a manual, Sisyphean task that requires massive manpower. This task is best done two years after a fire - meaning now. Otherwise, the pines will take over. "Pines get tall very quickly, and become incredibly dense. Within five or six years, we'd be where we were before, with dense trees and a canopy," Weiner says.

"It's a question of resources and time," says Dr. Omri Boneh, manager of the northern region for the Jewish National Fund, which is responsible for 10% of the burnt land. "Due to the scale of the disaster, we need to set priorities. We can put off addressing hard-to-reach places, but more accessible places need to be repaired quickly, as befits resources serving the public.

"The cabinet received a proposal for a NIS 200 million recovery plan, and it approved a budget less than one-third of that, so we can only address things partially. I don't see how we can rehabilitate given our current budget," Boneh says, but adds, "The preliminary step of removing burnt trees has already been carried out on half the land under our authority. We also planted saplings of naturally occurring species and repaired ancient agricultural terraces. Part of our goal is to create gardens for the public to enjoy."

Full recovery

Yet not all the businesses in the area are suffering. The Carmel Forest Spa Resort for one has fully recovered. "Carmel Forest caters to the top decile," says Pollack. "You come for the food, the sauna and the spa - not to hike in the Carmel. Maybe the visitors go outside to smoke because they can't smoke inside, but not much more than that."

Unlike other businesses in the area, the hotel had insurance protecting it in case of a fire. Beyond merely paying for the damage, the insurance covered salaries during the two months when the hotel was closed after the blaze.

"Insuring everything was the right thing to do," says hotel manager Aya Grundman. "The fire surrounded us, but we managed to hold it back. All the flora surrounding the hotel burned, and that was the most significant damage we suffered. The surrounding fence and the emergency stairs were damaged, as was the building's glass. The restaurant also sustained minor damage.

"One guest told me, 'God wouldn't burn the Garden of Eden,' since the fire stopped at our gates," she adds. "But the soot and the smell penetrated everything, and we needed to fix up the rooms. We rebuilt the restaurant, planted plants and built a new fence. The entire area was harmed, also in terms of reputation. We very much felt that during the holidays, when lots of people generally come to visit the area. But within the hotel you can't see what happened. The past year wasn't easy, but the number of guests is back to what it was. Yet the experience of traveling to a hotel within a forest is gone. The parks authority and the JNF haven't cleared out all the burnt trees and haven't opened all the roads."

The artists village of Ein Hod also contains few reminders of the fire. Local restaurants claim they've fully recovered. The town used the money it received in the wake of the fire to install street lights and to improve the access road. The Yamin Orad boarding school was also was repaired thanks to donations, and now sports new buildings.

The local horse farm, near Beit Oren, tried offering activities that related to the fire: ecological tours focusing on the forest's renewal. The farm's restaurant was full when we visited, though farm manager Ido Goren said this was a weak day. "On a full day there are 200 people here," he says. "In the months after the fire there was a sharp drop in visitors, because it's hard to turn a fire into something fun. But eventually things recovered."

Another site in the area is the Cry of the Jackals Mountain farm - an ecological community without electricity or water pipes not far from the Carmel Forest spa. The farm, which offers activities and camping, was encircled by fire. The young people who work there have since rebuilt the buildings and restored the surrounding flora.

"After the fire, hikers avoided the Carmel, but there was solidarity that helped us get through it," says Amit Abiri, one of the farms's managers. "The solidarity has dropped off somewhat, and not much came of it. Now, two years afterward, the forest is strong and beautiful again."

The horse farm near Beit Oren. 'Eventually things recovered,' says farm manager Ido Goren.Credit: Yuval Tebol

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