"I see lots of indigenous trees sprouting up everywhere, they are forest of the future," said KKL-JNF Carmel Forester Micha Silko. "There are terebinths, oaks and other trees that are growing at really impressive rates. One of our most exciting discoveries was an area where new strawberry trees, which are not very common in the Carmel, are suddenly the predominant tree. In the future, this hill slope, which is now covered by the remains of burnt trees, will be a grove of beautiful strawberry trees with their distinctive red bark."
Micha had invited us for a day in the Carmel to see how nature was renewing itself after December's unprecedented forest fire, which destroyed over 3,500 hectares of forests and natural woodlands. Against the backdrop of the burnt trees, we saw new foliage bursting up out of the grey ashes, awakening mixed emotions of sadness and hope.
"The fire was terrible," Micha continued, "but the fact that the pine trees were
burned exposed the forest floor to the sun, allowing trees whose roots were underground to receive sunlight and begin to flourish. In addition, the new trees also benefited from water that previously went to the pine trees.
"This section of the Carmel Forest was originally planted by KKL-JNF during the 1950s. We had a sense of urgency at that time, because planting forests was a way to protect Israel's lands, and conifers grow very quickly. Today, we have the luxury of knowing that we have time, we don't need immediate results and land cover. These strawberry trees will begin looking like a forest in ten to fifteen years from now.
"As for the pine trees, we're going to start cutting down the dead trees very soon. One of the lessons we learned from the forest fires that broke out during the Second Lebanese War was that some seemingly burnt pine trees were actually still alive. Whenever I see a pine tree that somehow managed to survive the flames, I do everything in my power to help that tree stay alive. Now, enough time has past since the fire, and we know which trees are dead and which are still alive. We have to get the burnt trees out of the way, firstly, because the decaying trees are a home for pests and secondly, because the dry trees catch fire instantly and increase the danger of future forest fires. We are also starting to create new fire breaks throughout the Carmel, with the help of KKL-JNF's friends throughout the world.
"The fire also caused pine cones to burst open and scatter pine tree seeds all over the forest floor. As a result, little pine seedlings are coming up everywhere, and we'll have to thin them out. We will, however, let some of them grow. People tend to forget that conifers are indigenous to the Carmel and are even mentioned in the Bible."
Micha was very excited to show us another area that the fire had uncovered. "We were amazed to discover ancient agricultural terraces on this mountain, which reach all the way to the mountaintop. We hadn't noticed them previously due to the thick underbrush. When we came back here a couple months ago, we discovered little olive trees sprouting up out of old roots that were still alive! Some of these olive trees are even growing in rows, a sure sign that they were planted by people who farmed this area hundreds of years ago.
"This was big news in KKL-JNF's Northern Region, and a unanimous decision was made to plant fruit trees, including carobs, figs, pomegranates, and others, on an area of about 200 dunam, thus restoring the original landscape. The actual work of planting and caring for this grove will be done by volunteers from Israel and abroad, including soldiers, schoolchildren, businesses, Birthright groups, KKL-JNF missions, and private individuals and families. From my past experience, I can say that the volunteers are highly motivated and full of energy. In fact, since forest rehabilitation work began about a month after the Carmel forest fire, about 20,000 volunteers have been here doing whatever needs to be done.
"KKL-JNF recently inaugurated a program for tourist, called "Forester for a Day", in which people come for a day of work in the forest. The program has become very popular, and families have started celebrating their children's Bar or Bat Mitzvah by accompanying their son or daughter to the forest, where they work as 'Forester for a Day'. This terraced area will be one of their primary worksites."
Micha pointed to the hill on the other side of the ravine. The contrast was very
stark. While the area we were standing in was full of barren, burnt trees, the hill across the ravine was green and lush, thick with natural woodland and forest brush. "KKL-JNF firefighters managed to stop the fire at this exact point," Micha said. "I was here, and I can tell you that our people literally risked their lives in order to save every tree possible.
"The Carmel forest fire was a terrible catastrophe, not only in terms of flora and fauna. Forty four people lost their lives not far from here when their bus when up in flames, and we will never forget them. I think people learned a lesson as a result of the fire," Micha continued. "People are more careful about making sure that bonfires and barbeques are totally extinguished before they leave the forest.
"Here in the Carmel Forest, we are seeing how nature begins the work of renewal the day after the fire subsides. We want to intervene as little as possible, but we will lend nature a helping hand wherever necessary. I find some comfort in the knowledge that our grandchildren will enjoy a much more diverse and interesting forest than the one we grew up with. Now that we are already starting to see the beginnings of the future forest, I have no doubt that the Carmel will in fact be rehabilitated and restored."
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