"For Us, Every Tree is like a Baby"

"Today (Sunday, December 5), we finally achieved control of the fire fronts in all the active areas," said Dr. Omri Bonneh, director of KKL-JNF's Northern Region, who took time out from overseeing KKL-JNF firefighting activities in the Carmel Forest to update a group of local and foreign journalists on efforts to curb the raging inferno that broke out last Thursday.

December 6, 2010 17:26

KKL061210_D. (photo credit: KKL)

"Today (Sunday, December 5), we finally achieved control of the fire fronts in all the KKLactive areas," said Dr. Omri Bonneh, director of KKL-JNF's Northern Region, who took time out from overseeing KKL-JNF firefighting activities in the Carmel Forest to update a group of local and foreign journalists on efforts to curb the raging inferno that broke out last Thursday. "This was, by far, the worst fire Israel has ever experienced. It was devastating – 42,000 dunams (4,200 hectares) of natural woodlands and planted forest were burned, and 42 people were killed. To put things in perspective, during the Second Lebanese War, which lasted 34 days, when northern Israel was bombarded by Katyusha rockets, 18,000 dunams went up in flames. This fire will be a turning point in terms of the Israeli government's approach to fire fighting. I can honestly say that if not for the fleet of international fire planes that provided aerial assistance to the firefighters on the ground, I don't think we could have brought this fire under control.

KKL"KKL-JNF was solely responsible for fighting the fire on the southern front, from Nir Etzion in the west to Daliat el-Carmel in the east, besides providing assistance and technical guidance to the Israeli Fire Department in all the other areas where the fire was blazing, thanks to our expertise in fighting fires in open areas and forests. The area under my command was very difficult to deal with - the forest is dense, with steep terrains and narrow roads. Working with ground crews in such terrain is very risky, but only the KKL-JNF foresters know every trail and road in the forest, every nook and cranny. 120 KKL-JNF foresters and supervisors came from all over Israel to participate in the firefighting effort, along with 12 large fire engines that were donated by friends of KKL-JNF throughout the world. KKL-JNF has taken a leadership position in forest firefighting in Israel, with an early warning system and observation towers at various strategic positions throughout its forests.

"The fire spread very rapidly, due to dry weather, brush and extended summer. We should have had 200-300 mms. of rain by now, but, probably due to climate change caused by global warming, the winter hasn't even begun yet. I cannot describe the intensity of the flames, which reached heights of 30-40 meters. You can't stop such a fire directly, only from the sides or from behind it.

"On a personal note, I started my career as a KKL-JNF forester 28 years ago, here in the Carmel Mountains, near Haifa, my hometown. This area is significant to Jews and Christians, and the Druze settled the area about 300 years ago. I was involved with the forest fires that broke out in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were nothing compared to this one in terms of size and intensity."

Eren Etner, a KKL-JNF forester from the Negev, described his feelings: "For us, every tree is like a baby. All the KKL-JNF field workers have experience putting fires out. It's not enough to plant a forest, you have to know how to take care of it. We're on a break now, it seems quiet, but that's only on the surface. At any given moment, the fire could break out again, so we're on the watch for smoke.

"The KKL-JNF fire trucks are the only land vehicles Israel has for fighting forest KKLfires. They can traverse terrain that regular fire trucks can't, and are equipped with hoses that are 25 meters long. Just a couple hours ago, the fire reignited at a spot we could never have reached with regular fire trucks. The KKL-JNF fire trucks are definitely one of the many heroes of this saga."

Yossi Hamias, also a KKL-JNF forester: "We've been on duty all night long, we replaced a previous KKL-JNF crew who are resting now, and will eventually relieve us. We need to rest, but none of us want to sleep, the forest is too precious for us."

At Nahal Bustan, One of Israel's Greenest Ravines until Last Thursday
Dr. Bonneh pointed to a charred forest and streambed bordered by a grove that was still green. "This was the site of one of our major battles," he said. "KKL-JNF firefighters and fire trucks stopped the fire here. You can see the difficulties – the steep terrain, dense forest and narrow roads. The fire line here is 5 kilometers long, and now we have to hold it so it doesn’t reignite. I'll never forget hearing KKL-JNF fighters on the wireless, informing us that they were escaping to save their lives and leaving the water hoses behind. We retreated, but we're professionals, and eventually we achieved control. All in all we're pleased with what we did, because we stopped the fire here, even thought the wind kept pushing the fire back in our direction.

"This used to be one of Israel's favorite hiking trails. It will take many years to restore the beauty. Animals suffer the most from forest fires, they can't escape. We saw jackals and wild boars running from side to side, trying to get away. It was horrible."

As we spoke, four Greek fire planes sprayed water into the ravine to prevent the fire from reigniting. "Bombarders, that's what the Greeks call them," Omri Bonneh added.

The Battle by the Carmel Mountains Hotel
Dr. Bonneh took us to the point where he has spent a good deal of his time over KKLthe past 72 hours, a hill from which there is a bird's eye view of the entire region. We could see the Carmel Forest Hotel on a nearby mountain peak. "It's very sad for me to come here 28 years after I first started working as a KKL-JNF forester and to see the devastation. The fire raged from this point to 14 kilometers north of here, near Haifa. Two nights ago, we came with eight KKL-JNF fire trucks to the area by the entrance to the hotel. As soon as we arrived, powerful winds fanned the flames, there were fire walls 30-40 meters high. We retreated one kilometer back and tried to stabilize a new line. During the night, the wind changed direction, and our fire suppression line fell. We decided to try and stabilize another line in the ravine, the worst possible place to stop a fire. The best place is on the ridge, where the fire's intensity is less. But all we cared about was stopping the fire, so we did whatever we had to do."

Ein Hod
"One of our greatest successes was saving Kibbutz Nir Etzion, which had burnt KKLdown in one of the previous Carmel fires. 10 KKL-JNF fire trucks participated in that effort.  
Sadly, the artist's village of Ein Hod was not so fortunate. The fire attacked the village at an incredible speed and the government decided to evacuate the residents from their homes. It was extremely dangerous, the fire jumped from one side of the road to the other. As you can see, some houses were razed to the ground. It's very sad."

One of the local residents asked Dr. Bonneh if it wasn't a mistake to plant so many pine trees. Dr. Bonneh replied that in fact, 80% of the trees that burned down were indigenous species. "In addition, the Aleppo pine is entirely native to the Carmel Mountain range. After the Second Lebanese War, almost all of our plantings were native species. Our goal at KKL-JNF is to work together with nature, not to change it."

The Day After – Rehabilitation and Restoration
Dr. Bonneh concluded with an overview of KKL-JNF rehabilitation policy: "We learned a lot from the Second Lebanese War, both in terms of firefighting methods in forests and open spaces, and also in terms of forest rehabilitation. In general, forests rejuvenate after fires. While we plant new trees in some areas for recreation or for other reasons, our basic policy is to rely on natural processes, which may sound easy, but in fact is extremely demanding, labor-intensive and costly. When trees regenerate naturally, they grow very densely. We have to be on top of every square meter of the forest, performing thinning operations and forest maintenance, in order to ensure a healthy forest that can also be used for recreation. To give you just one example - in an era of global warming, when there are smaller amounts of annual precipitation, we clear the area around each tree, because the more space a tree has, the more resistant it is to drought, since it has less competition KKL-JNF is a world leader in encouraging indigenous species in forests.

"During the course of this terrible fire, KKL-JNF's dedicated firefighters demonstrated a high level of professionalism and skill. With the help of our friends throughout the world, we are now ready to channel our energies to the long and arduous work of bringing the color green back to the Carmel forests."

For Articles, comments or use please contact
Ahuva Bar-Lev
KKL-JNF – Information and Publications
Email: ahuvab@kkl.org.il
Phone: 972-2-6583354 Fax:972-2-6583493

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