Carmel, and its people, prepare to rise from the ashes

"In two years it will all be green," says Beit Oren emergency chief; "only" a third of the forest destroyed, not half; 219 still homeless.

December 10, 2010 01:08
AN IDF soldier watches the firefighting operation

Carmel Firefighting Plane 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Four days after the worst fire in Israeli history was brought under control, a heavy smell of burnt forest and scorched earth still hangs in the air over Mount Carmel.

Entire mountainsides that were once green are now black with the skeletons of burnt trees pointing into the sky. It is easy to see how the fire ran along the ridges, leaving a mottled brown trail. A wisp of smoke still hangs above select points.

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At one point, it is all too easy to see where the blaze crossed the road and burned to a crisp the vegetation on the other side. Just below Kibbutz Beit Oren, it stopped for some reason, leaving a wide swath of burned ground alongside a ribbon of green.

And yet, in the quiet aftermath of last weekend’s wildfire, a calming sense of proportion was offered up Thursday by foresters on Mount Carmel.

Based on an aerial survey, the area damaged is now estimated at 3,500 hectares (35,000 dunams), not the 4,000-5,000 hectares previously feared, said officials of the Jewish National Fund, which is responsible for part of the forest’s upkeep.

That’s about a third of the entire forested area of the Carmel range. Initial estimates had indicated half of the forest had burned.

Despite blackened stretches of the national park and other forested areas, green remains the Carmel’s predominant color. Within three months, said the JNF foresters, even the blackened areas will be showing splashes of green.

As for the Hai-Bar nature reserve, which had seemed in the early hours of the fire to have been completely consumed, all the animals it harbored were spared, said JNF officials.

Though the wild animals have fled, government work teams have descended hither and yon to restore basic services. An Israel Electric Corporation team was hauling a new electricity pole up the mountain on Thursday.

Other brightly colored earth-moving vehicles were clearly visible against the brown and black backdrop.

In Beit Oren, Green Police officers clad in white hazmat suits and face masks were dealing with the asbestos released when nine houses on the edge of the kibbutz were gutted by the flames.

Haim Elbaz of the Green Police said 1,500-1,700 square meters of roof were now considered hazardous.

Asbestos is carcinogenic if it breaks down into its component fibers.

The nine houses stand forlorn on the edge of the kibbutz – devastated structures that will have to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

“Our apartment burned for 10 hours. They say it was the longest-burning apartment in the kibbutz,” Ofer Pollack told The Jerusalem Post, attempting to use black humor to come to grips with the loss of his home.

He said his wife had had the foresight to grab a diskon- key with pictures of the kids from the computer and some clothes, but that was it.

As Pollack stared at the burned-out husk of his home, his dog came to lie on the scorched building’s porch. The pet has been coming back to the building every chance he can, Pollack said.

Even as they tried to process their loss, residents returned to the kibbutz on Wednesday. Yochai Cohen, head of the kibbutz’s emergency team, said that almost 90 percent of the commune’s buildings had been spared, even though the fire had breached the community.

Cohen, who was born in the kibbutz and has seen numerous fires over the years, downplayed the scorched slopes surrounding him and the heavy scent that still hung in the air.

“In two months, it’ll all begin looking green. In two years it will be green,” he said.

Gil Shin, another local man, said some of the residents were staying in the kibbutz’s hotel and guest house, but that those who could had already returned to their homes. He emphatically denied that anyone was even interested in relocating after the traumatic events of last weekend.

“We’re a community. The Treasury wants to give us money to go rent houses elsewhere, but we want caravans set up here in our kibbutz,” he told the Post.

Across the street from the nine destroyed houses, the courtyard of a nursery school for one- and oneand- a-half-year-olds was being swept out in preparation for reopening on Sunday.

Last Thursday, “some of the parents came to evacuate their kids. Others we put on a bus that was sent, and their parents picked them up somewhere else,” the teacher, Pirha, said.

“Inside the nursery school is fine, it’s just the courtyard that was burned,” she said, before hurrying away to continue tidying up with the help of some student volunteers.

Forester Michael Weinberger said that 100-meterwide firebreaks would be cut through the forest to make it more difficult in the future for fire to race unimpeded.

Asked what would have happened had the fleet of foreign firefighting aircraft not dumped tons of water onto the blaze, he said, “I don’t want to think about it.”

Pressed to think about it, he estimated that the area destroyed would have been at least twice as large.

The biggest fire Israel had experienced before this one was at Sha’ar Hagai on the approach to Jerusalem 15 years ago, covering about 1,500 hectares. Forester Yisrael Tauber said that elaborate plans had been drawn up then to replant the damaged forest.

However, he said, nature refused to cooperate; it rejuvenated the forest in the way it, not the planners, chose. “This time,” said Tauber, “we will wait and let nature talk.”

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan arrived Thursday morning with a group of officials and media to tour the area and to hold a work meeting with local council heads.

Erdan was appointed to head an interministerial committee to oversee the rehabilitation of the natural area of the Carmel. Prime Minister’s Office director-general Eyal Gabai has been appointed to head a committee dealing with the damage to the local councils.

Erdan said the cost to rehabilitate the nature reserve has been roughly estimated at NIS 170 million Finance Ministry Director-General Haim Shani reported to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Thursday night that initial estimates of damage to houses and infrastructure were NIS 100m.-NIS 120m., bringing the total damages to close to NIS 300m.

Shani added that 50-60 percent of the damage to the homes had been insured.

The Water Authority had already sent in teams to repair water and sewage lines, he said.

The Interior Ministry said 74 homes had been destroyed by the fire and another 173 partially damaged.

Meanwhile, 219 residents were currently homeless and staying in hotels, according to the ministry.

The government has already transferred a guarantee to local authorities covering payments of NIS 2,500 each to 190 residents who were affected by the fire. The Interior Ministry transferred an additional NIS 8.2m. to the local authorities on Thursday to aid their repair efforts.

Erdan strongly dismissed the need for a state committee of inquiry into the fire.

“The country does not need a political circus right now.

The comptroller was appointed to look into deficiencies and has done so. Everyone knows what the problem is and who voted in favor and who didn’t,” he said.

Usfiya Local Council head Wajeh Kayouf said at the work meeting that he had been busing the children of the village to other parts of the country every day since the fire.

“We measured rates of 1,631 ppm [parts per million] here, when it should be 150 ppm,” he said, referring to tiny particles released by the fire that pose a threat to respiratory systems.

Environmental Protection Ministry director-general Yossi Inbar laid out the committee’s work plan.

“The first task is to prune and cut down trees. The heavy rains expected this weekend could lead to soil erosion and falling trees, so we are asking the public to stay away,” he said. “We will wait until the end of the winter and then undertake a situation assessment.”

Erdan added that no tree-planting would take place for at least a year.

After the immediate steps, fire suppression equipment would be replenished, infrastructure repaired and fire corridors created, Inbar said.

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