In aftermath of fires, nature reboots Judean Hills ecosystems

"Fire is part of Mediterranean atmosphere," JNF director says.

December 12, 2016 19:02
4 minute read.
Fire near Jerusalem

A firefighter works during a wildfire, near the communal settlement of Nataf, close to Jerusalem November 23, 2016. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

With throngs of scorched pine trees in the distance, tiny blades of grass poked out of the dark Judean Hills soil on Monday morning, breathing fresh signs of life into the battered Har Haruach.

The so-called “Wind Mountain” was among the wooded areas northwest of Jerusalem to suffer from the blazes that raged through the region just two-and-a-half weeks prior.

“We are in the middle of the fire – the fire passed through this area,” Chanoch Zoref, director of the Judean Hills region for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, told a group of reporters that morning. “The seasonal plants disappeared. All you see here is new growth.”

The fires in this region, he explained, burned through some 1,300 hectares of land – a sizable chunk of the estimated 4,100 hectares destroyed by flames around the country during the same time period. While discussing the devastating effects of the blazes on human, animal and plant communities, Zoref also emphasized the potential opportunities for natural regrowth, as plants like the blades of grass take root in place of their larger predecessors.

“Fire is really a part of the Mediterranean ecosystem,” he said.

From the 600-meter peak at Har Haruach that morning, Zoref gestured downward to the red roofs of the Nataf community in the distance, where the fires of November 23 and 25 began. While one home and one restaurant were destroyed entirely and two homes suffered damage, Zoref stressed that “the whole village could have been burned completely.”

The first of the two blazes, he explained, was an accident, started by an elderly security guard who lit a fire to make himself some tea.

“It was very cold in the morning, very strong easterly winds, very dry,” Zoref said. “This guy was very old; he just wanted to drink some tea.”

Driving down to the spot in question later that morning, Zoref pointed out the three large stones where the security guard sat to prepare his tea, at the edge of the observation deck overlooking the Memorial Forest of Polish Jewry, just a kilometer from Nataf.

“The wind was driving the fire so fast to the west,” he said.

In just an hour-and-a-half, the blaze was able to cover a range of 4 kilometers, according to Zoref.

The firefighters were able to quash the flames just 100 meters shy of the fueling station at Sha’ar Hagai, off of Route 1, he added.

“It runs quickly; this is something we never experience here – a whole week of dry, easterly winds, something I think is connected to climate change,” Zoref said.

While the November 23 fire may have been accidental, the blaze that occurred two days later was the result of an “ignition device” thrown into the forest from the nearby Palestinian village of Katanna, across the Green Line, Zoref explained. That fire, he said, was “running unbelievably fast,” with 50 kilometer-per-hour winds.

Eventually, Nataf was saved by 57 fire engines, he continued.

As KKL-JNF plans to rehabilitate the lands under its jurisdiction, Zoref stressed that in the first year following the blazes, the key plan of action is to simply “do nothing.” Because all of the soil is prone to erosion after such events, people should not even be walking in the area, according to Zoref.

Within the first three years after the fires, some cutting of hazardous dead pines may be necessary, as these trees could impact the integrity of hiking trails and disturb the regrowth of other plants.

Only after three years, however, is it possible to decide whether any replanting of the trees themselves will occur, Zoref said.

“If we plant trees, it will be on a very limited scale,” he said. “Mainly, you want to rely on natural processes.”

The fires had clear negative impacts on the country, as trees, other plants, animals and infrastructure fell victim to the flames, which also released large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions into the air, Zoref said.

Nonetheless, he stressed the fact that the events also had inadvertently positive ramifications – such as the reappearance of plant life that had previously vanished from the area.

“The good thing, if you can call it a good thing, is that in the Mediterranean atmosphere, fire has been a part of it for so many years,” Zoref said.

“It’s a restart of the ecosystem,” he said, adding that he does not encourage starting wildfires.

As the country moves forward after the recent events, Zoref said, one potential consideration for the future might be the deployment of controlled fires. Doing so could serve to create buffer zones around villages, reduce the risk of wildfires and encouraging biodiversity, he explained.

While controlled fires could act as an advantageous management tool, Zoref said, neither the government nor KKL-JNF has plans to use them at this point. If officials do one day decide to move forward with such a program, however, controlled fires would ideally be combined with animal grazing as well as mechanical solutions, like cutting and mowing plant life, he said.

“It’s a very dangerous tool – you have to study it a lot,” Zoref said.

“We are not starting to put fire to the State of Israel.”

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