After months of battling arson in forests around Jerusalem, an exhausted
firefighting force dealt with the largest blaze yet at the entrance to the
capital on Tuesday, when a series of fires raged through the valley next to
Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Asaf Abras said
from initial investigation, firefighters suspect that arson may have been the
cause of the fires due to the proximity of the fires as well as the small window
of time in which they occurred.
Forty-six firefighting crews from
Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and around the country were called in to battle the
fire, which started around 1 p.m. Three people were lightly injured from smoke
inhalation at the beginning of the fire, but there were no other
The blaze occurred a week after State Comptroller Micha
Lindenstrauss issued a scathing report criticizing various government ministries
over their ill preparedness for the Carmel Forest fire in December
Highway 1 was closed to traffic in both directions for two hours as
heavy smoke covered the road and the fire crept up towards Mevaseret Zion.
Dozens of cars were stranded on Highway 1 as police refused to let drivers
continue for fear the flames would leap across the road.
Magen David Adom
passed out water to the drivers to avoid dehydration during the hot
Some of those in cars panicked and fled their vehicles, trying
to get to Beit Zayit and surrounding villages, as they remembered the bus of
Prisons Service guards that got stuck on the highway during the Carmel Forest
fire, killing 37 people.
“It was very surreal, we were watching from
above and you just saw people streaming out of their cars,” said Abras. “Because the Carmel disaster is so fresh in their minds, they got
The first fire started near Lifta, an abandoned Arab village at
the entrance to Jerusalem. Just as firefighters brought that blaze under control
around 2:30 p.m., fires broke out in two separate spots near the Mevaseret Zion
suburb of Motza. The fire burned more than 100 dunams (25 acres), including
parts of the Einot Telem National Park and olive terraces in the wadi, and
blackened much of the area from Lifta to the Old Motza Synagogue on Highway 1 in
Abras noted that the topography of the steep wadi made
the fire especially dangerous and difficult to control. Fires love to climb, and
the fire swept easily up the sides of the wadi towards the homes of Mevaseret
Zion. Parts of Ma’aleh Hahamisha and Motza were evacuated during the fire. Magen
David Adom raised the warning level to C, the highest warning level, as hundreds
of emergency personnel were concentrated in the area.
Abras credited the
quick response of the firefighting planes with allowing the firefighters to have
control over the fire within five hours. The first planes began dumping water
and flame-retardant less than 20 minutes after crews arrived on the scene, he
Riky, a Mevaseret Zion resident whose home overlooks the smoking
valley, said she first realized the fire was out of control when the
firefighting planes started flying overhead at rapid intervals. Riky suspected
from the beginning that the fire was a result of arson.
“It didn’t light
on its own,” she said. “I saw two points of fire that were not
connected. Maybe it was affected by weather and the wind strengthened it,
but it didn’t happen on its own.”
Jerusalem firefighters have dealt with
a large wave of arson in the last few months. Not counting the fires in the past
few days, there have been 1,058 incidents of fires in open areas in the past six
weeks. Firefighters have determined that arson was responsible for at least 70
percent of those incidents.
There are usually a total of 4,000 incidents
of fires in open areas and forests in the Jerusalem district during the course
of a year.
Firefighters received commendations from Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu for their quick response to the blaze, though opposition
leader Shelly Yechimovich (Labor) called on the Knesset to immediately implement
the findings from the State Comptroller’s Report, which blasted the Finance
Ministry and Interior Ministry for underfunding the Fire and Rescue
“Allow the firefighters to do what they’re good at: saving
lives, not begging the finance minister to determine their fate,” she said in a
statement released by her office.
Abras said the firefighters and police
implemented a number of lessons learned in the Carmel fire, including improved
communications between police, the Jewish National Fund, Magen David Adom and
other rescue services, and firefighters. He also said since the December 2010
disaster, firefighters have worked to provide a strong initial response of at
least four crews for a forest fire, rather than sending one and waiting for
their report. While the Jerusalem District has received some new equipment and
firefighting trucks in the past half year, it is still significantly missing
equipment to satisfy the standard set by the State Comptroller’s
Mevaseret Zion residents seized on Tuesday’s fire as proof that
the Transportation Ministry plan to upgrade Highway 1 – which would leave just
one entrance and exit for Mevaseret Zion and the Mateh Yehuda towns – could be
dangerous in these types of emergencies.
Mevaseret Zion mayor Arie Shamam
warned that a fire or terrorist attack on Highway 1 at the single entrance would
completely paralyze the 80,000 residents and make it impossible for rescue
services to get to the area.
Overnight, inspectors with the Jewish
National Fund canvassed the area to ensure that the fire was completely
extinguished in the national park. Firefighters are continuing their
investigation. If they determine the cause of the fire was arson, the
investigation will be handed over to police.
In the past two weeks, seven
people have been arrested for involvement in the wave of arsons.