(photo credit: KKL)
"When I first heard that a fire had broken out in the Carmel, I was in the middle of taking one of KKL-JNF's fire trucks for its annual inspection. I rushed to where the fire was raging, and I saw a sight unlike anything I had ever seen since 1979, when I first began working in KKL-JNF. We started trying to contain the fire, but then we had to do something we never did before – we had to abandon our positions and retreat, and then retreat once again. We're not used to retreating. It was literally hell on earth."
We were speaking with Michael Weinberger, KKL-JNF forest supervisor for the Western Galilee and Carmel Mountain, on Tuesday, December 7, when the devastating Carmel forest fire, which caused hundreds of millions of shekels in damage, was finally brought under control. He spoke about some of the dilemmas KKL-JNF firefighters face in such a situation: "There are moments of great frustration. You know that the fire is raging in six or seven different places, you love every inch of the forest, your forces are limited, which fire do you try to put out first? In general, we try to save an older forest before a younger one, because it is more developed, and we also take location and topographical and weather conditions into consideration. Unfortunately, we gained a lot of experience in dealing with forest fires during the Second Lebanese War, when we faced similar dilemmas. The difference between the fires then and the Carmel fire was that this fire was so much bigger, while during the war, we also were exposed to the danger of Katyusha rockets falling on us.
"KKL-JNF workers came from all over the country to help, but they're not familiar with the forest trails of the Carmel, so I had to assign a local person to each of the firefighting teams. We worked day and night, with the help of the KKL-JNF fire trucks. I cannot overestimate the critical importance of these fire trucks, which were donated by friends of KKL-JNF from all over the world. They made a huge difference. If not for them, a lot more of the forest would have been destroyed. They were built according to our specifications, they carry a lot of water, and they can go places other fire engines can't. Thanks to them and to the dedication of the KKL-JNF workers, we were able to save some of the forest, for which I'm very grateful.
"Was my life ever in danger? On the first day of the fire, I was driving in front of the bus that was burned up, in which 42 people lost their lives. I made it out of there with 30 seconds to spare.
"There were some moments of satisfaction. For example, we received orders to help protect homes in Kibbutz Beit Oren that hadn't already been burnt by stopping the fire in the forest on the western side of the kibbutz. Our job is to save the forests and open spaces, not houses, but if I see people's homes about to go up in flames, how could I not help save them?
"One of the most difficult moments for me was to have seemingly contained the fire and saved some area, then going somewhere else or resting for a couple hours, and coming back and discovering that in the meantime, the area I thought I had saved, burnt down. I felt frustration, disappointment, and a terrible, terrible sadness.
"A forest isn't just about trees. Forests provide habitats for plants and animals.
Many animals were killed in the fire, but even if they managed to survive, their habitat is gone. I saw a deer that came back to its territory, a beautiful green forest that was now black and red from the fire retardant sprayed by the fire planes. The poor thing had such a look of shock and disbelief in its gentle eyes. And there was a goldfinch that stood staring at the burnt forest, incapable of moving even when people stood right next to it. These are memories I will never forget"
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