JNF Warns of Danger From Lack of Firebreak Areas

The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) is warning of a growing danger to the lifes of people living in communities near forests, if they do not take appropriate action to prevent and control forest fires.

The JNF says it is necessary to improve the coordination between the various firefighting authorities, and to implement the recommendations to establish a firebreak area without vegetation around every community. The JNF recently put into service a fleet of special new fire trucks designed specifically for the JNF for fighting forest fires. JNF officials have spoken out on the matter in recent weeks.

The fear of damage and injuries has grown after the serious blaze a month and a half ago in the area of Ma'ale Hahamisha in the Jerusalem Corridor, which spread toward a number of towns. The forest fire damaged a number of school buildings.

Dr. Zvi Avni, head of the JNF's forestry division, said a great tragedy was avoided at Ma'ale Hahamisha because the fire happened on Saturday and there were no pupils at the school. "There would have been a real problem to rescue the students there," explained Avni. "The firefighters knew there were no students so they mostly dealt with protecting the communities."

A JNF inquiry determined it was necessary to warn the towns in the area that they had not cleared fire breaks, and of the dangers facing them. The inquiry found there was no such open area around the school, and that the town of Abu Ghosh has no such protection either. In addition, there were tracts covered with flammable materials such as trees and bushes in fields farmers had left fallow.

To improve preparations for future fires, the JNF plans to operate its 22 new fire trucks, which can traverse difficult terrain carrying a large amount of water. However there are a still a lot of problems such as a lack of hookups to main water lines, said Avni.

The JNF is also finishing implementing the recommendations stemming from the fires during the Second Lebanon War two years ago. During the summer of 2006, about 16,000 dunams (4,000 acres) of forest were burned. Israel was left without any reserves of fire retardant, and the Air Force had to make 11 flights overseas to replenish the inventory, mostly from fears of fires at military installations. Today there are emergency supplies of flame retardant, said Avni.

The use of helicopters to put out forest fires was stopped a few years for a number of reasons, but in particular due to damage to the helicopters while they were lifting the seawater containers used to fight the fires, Avni said. Instead the JNF is now using crop spraying airplanes to spread fire retardants. However, there are problems in paying for the planes, and the JNF often has to provide interim financing even though the state is supposed to pay for the fire fighting, he added.