Who Needs a Squadron to Fight Fires?

The American supertanker may photograph well, but it doesn't do the job as efficiently as the smaller Israeli aircraft already on duty.

Aryeh Etzioni, formerly of Kibbutz Beit Oren, approached his childhood home in his plane. While flying above Rosh Pina, he saw the heavy smoke cloud rising from the Carmel forests, and by the time he got close to Beit Oren, he could restrain himself no longer: "Oh no, I can't believe what my eyes are seeing," he cried over the plane radio. Just an hour earlier, Etzioni was busy exterminating pests threatening citrus groves in the Upper Galilee. When he was summoned to the Carmel, he left the Galilee and touched down at the Megiddo airstrip. He jumped onto a second plane that awaited him, one that was filled with fire retardants, and from there, flew off to save his old house, and others, from the flames. According to the mission log book, he was in the air at 12:32, making him the first on the scene.

Etzioni and some of his comrades had been on call for emergency fire prevention work up to December 1, the day before the Carmel disaster. The season for such emergency standby duty extends from April 1 to December 1. Etzioni, who recently turned 60, is not the oldest pilot in the spray-and-fire prevention squad. Ilan Sela, another pilot who also raced to the scene of the Carmel fire, is 64. Considerable experience is needed in situations where planes are required to fly so low they almost scratch cotton plants and electrical wires. A graduate of the Israel Air Force pilots training course, he has been a pilot for 38 years, Etzioni has 20,000 hours of flight time under his belt.

Super Tanker- Alon Ron
Alon Ron

Competition between spray-and-fire prevention companies - Chim-Nir, with its white-and-blue aircraft, and the yellow-black Telem - is fierce. Each is bent on destroying the other. A Telem marketing presentation gloats about its outstanding pilots, whose safety supervisor is an El Al captain, Miki Katz, and their pilots' IDF ranks (four majors, three lieutenant colonels, including Etzioni, and one brigadier general ), along with its stringent safety regulations.

Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu's claims to the contrary, the large, foreign planes that arrived when he blew his whistle were not the ones to put out the blaze on the Carmel. They did a lot less than the Israeli pilots in their small planes. The American supertanker looked imposing when it was photographed in the air, but off camera, it turned out it lacked suitable storage tanks (Telem provided some improvised solutions for the American plane ).

Professional firefighters who try to learn lessons from major blazes, for example in places like California and Greece (where arson is frequent, with land owners eager to convert wooded areas into property suitable for construction ), have recently taken issue with the traditional approach of dumping huge amounts of fire retardants on a blaze. Instead, they advocate speed, dexterity and focus, meaning small planes that can fly low and maneuver between hills and then clear out of the troubled area without crashing.

The small planes can only pack a ton or two of fire retardants (far less than the 40-80 ton capacities of huge planes ), but they can take off from nearby fields, dart back and forth quickly, dump many tons in a short amount of time, and douse fires with precision. In firefighting, as in spraying, the key is to approach the target with speed but then fly over the area slowly, against the wind, so that the material stays in one place and doesn't scatter.

Israeli planes fighting the blaze in the Carmel were dispatched north of the road that leads up from Nir Etzion and Ein Hod, while foreign planes were instructed to focus on the areas south. This may explain why the fire was put under control in the north but continued to rage in the south.

Spray planes began doing fire prevention work here in the mid-1980s, when powerful turbo-prop engines were developed, and the Chimavir company was launched. Around this time, two developments took place that affected Israel's fire prevention capabilities. The first was the creation of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, within the Interior Ministry. The second was the break-up of Chimavir and the creation in its stead of Chim-Nir, a company owned by pilots and supported by the Histadrut.

As a result of upheaval in the stock market at the time, Etzioni and Sela left Chim-Nir, and joined a new company, Telem. Today, the two rival companies together maintain a fleet of 14 planes, each one worth about half a million dollars (the most expensive component in these sort of planes is the engine, which costs about $280,000 ). At the crack of dawn, before the winds begin blowing, they're used to spraying agricultural fields. When funding is available, they're also on call to fight fires.

During the Carmel disaster, Etzioni and his comrades worked as if they were combat pilots on duty. They attacked the flames with a special type of fire retardant, with which they had partial success. Flames that came within 30 meters of houses at Kiryat Tivon were extinguished from the air, as was a fire that threatened the communal settlement of Neve Ziv, near the Kabri junction.

The acquisition of another 10-15 light planes that can easily access trouble spots is a much better option for Israel than buying huge aircraft. Such light planes may be less photogenic, but they are more effective when it comes to firefighting. The difference between using a firefighting plane on emergency standby and one that is not can be critical. A plane on emergency standby (one filled with water, or water and powder ) can take flight in 10 minutes, as opposed to the 90 minutes required for a plane not on duty. Emergency call funding is provided by three sources - the Interior Ministry, the Israel Fire and Rescue Services and the Jewish National Fund. The person in charge of determining levels of fire preparedness in the north of Israel is Amir Levy, commander of the Western Galilee Fire Department. During the just-ended April-December 1 emergency call-up season, the total number of preparation hours tallied was 300, a far cry from the recommended 800. That's because the government was more interested in saving money. Nobody saw what was coming on December 2.

Netanyahu's decision to create a squadron of firefighting planes, in response to the Carmel disaster, was greeted with automatic head-nodding. IAF Colonel "B" immediately set out to check the various options and costs for setting up such a squadron. Planes will be needed, along with flight crews, and decisions will need to be made as to how often to use them and how often to allow them to sit idly on runways during the winter.

Truth be told, the creation of such a squadron doesn't have much merit. What's more likely to happen is that adjustments will be made in the way water and other materials are stored and packed onto transport aircraft like the Karnaf (Lockheed C-130 ). The important point is not what flies, but rather what it's carrying.

There's a good chance then that when Aryeh Etzioni's eldest son gets called up for reserve duty, he'll end up dropping water from the Karnaf aircraft that compete with the small civilian planes flown by his father. Not the best option, but the most Israeli one.