Study Finds Judean Hills Susceptible to Next Big Fire

Jewish National Fund warns that communities in the hills between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh have objected to taking necessary preventative measures.

The heavily forested hills between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh could well become the scene of Israel’s next major fire, as local communities have objected to taking the necessary preventive measures, the Jewish National Fund warned.

Such preventive measures include thinning the forests and creating firebreaks between the forests and the towns.

Researchers from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology recently conducted a study on fire risks in the vicinity and passed their conclusions on to JNF, which is responsible for managing most of the area. The study found that a large fire could spread rapidly along the ridges and would likely hit the region between Zova, Tzur Hadassah and Eshtaol particularly hard.

The predictions of a similar study of the Carmel region three years ago, in terms of which areas would be hardest hit, proved largely accurate in last month’s Carmel fire.

The new study found that a fire would spread faster along the hilltops and more slowly across the wadis between them. It would spread fastest of all, the study predicts, in the Zova-Tzur Hadassah-Eshtaol triangle and the area north of Beit Shemesh.

The Technion researchers advised the JNF to focus on preventive measures in high-risk areas. In particular, they urged the immediate creation of firebreaks around Zova, Even Sapir, Eitanim, Ramat Raziel and the JNF offices in Eshtaol.

But Chanoch Zoref, the JNF’s director for the Judean Hills region, said the organization’s efforts to take preventive measures have been met with opposition from local communities.

“The towns don’t want to let us thin out the vegetation, because it’s important to them to preserve the landscape,” he said. “We have no means of enforcement against a town that refuses to protect itself against fires. I understand that the landscape is important to them, but once a fire reaches the row of trees near their homes, we won’t be able to protect the houses.”

Nevertheless, Zoref said, the JNF would continue trying to create firebreaks. The body would also like to move more flocks of sheep and cattle into the area, as their grazing would help prune the vegetation naturally. But the number of herds, owned mainly by Bedouin, has steadily declined as they have become less profitable; government subsidies are needed to reverse this trend, Zoref said.

“Once 70 or 80 flocks would come up here from the Negev,” he said. “Today, there are barely 20.”