The first flowers of the season can now be seen covering the slopes of Mount Carmel, reminding us once more of nature’s enduring capacity for renewal, even after a major forest fire. These first blooms from the scorched earth have emerged from bulbs and tubers buried deep in the ground, where they have remained secure and untouched by the flames. Cyclamen, narcissi and sea squills peep out from among the trees in both burned and undamaged areas, and in some parts of the woodland grassy plants are already struggling back to life.
We spoke to KKL-JNF Carmel forester Yaakov Arak about the regeneration process that the burned forest is undergoing. He told us that the trees are also beginning to show signs of life, though they will, of course, take much longer to recover than the flowering plants. Broad-leaved trees such as the oak, terebinth and Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) regenerate from their existing roots, which generally remain undamaged by fire. Because of this, their recovery is relatively swift, as their large root system enables them to grow quickly. There is, however, a downside to this process: the roots generally send out several new trunks, and, as these are liable to prevent the tree from attaining the desired height, careful pruning is usually necessary at a later stage.
Coniferous trees such as the pine sprout afresh from the seeds scattered when the cones of the burned trees spring open in the heat of the fire. Here, too, the process is a lengthy one that can result in an over-dense forest, and, to ensure healthy woodland development, intervention will probably be necessary at some point in the future.
On the basis of a decision taken jointly by the experts representing a variety of bodies involved in the rehabilitation of Mount Carmel, the foresters are at present refraining from taking any action in the fire-damaged areas, and are leaving nature to regenerate on its own. They are concentrating instead on pruning trees and cutting back vegetation in undamaged areas of woodland, to prevent outbreaks of fire in the future.
Forest fires start at ground level and turn into major blazes only when they reach the treetops, where they begin to spread at great speed. Pruning the bottom third of the trees reduces the risk of the flames’ reaching the treetops. Yaakov Arak explains that the goal is to decrease the volume of organic material in the forest by a third, in order to diminish the risk of fire, and – should fire break out nonetheless – delay the spread of flames.
Ninety per cent of the fire-damaged area on Mount Carmel is natural woodland, where trees and vegetation grow in dense proximity. Man-made forests are less vulnerable to fire, but KKL-JNF has accepted the challenge of protecting the natural woodlands, too, without impairing their unique character.
Some of the areas being tended at present by KKL-JNF foresters and volunteers are woodlands damaged in earlier fires, where extremely dense new growth has sprung up. These woodlands have to be pruned, and in some cases young trees need to be thinned out. “Maintaining the correct ratio of trees to area not only reduces the danger of fire – it also ensures healthy forest development,” explains Yaakov Arak.
Pruning is important also because it encourages trees to grow tall. Apart from adding to the beauty of the woodland, tall trees, once they have reached a suitable height, allow the forest to be used for grazing, and the presence of sheep and cattle does them no harm. This benefits farmers by extending the available grazing land, and also provides effective protection for the forest.
“Woodlands grazed by flocks are much less susceptible to fire, as they contain less organic material,” Arak explains. And thus sheep, goats and cows provide KKL-JNF with an additional work force that specializes in keeping the forest trim.
Thousands of volunteers from Israel and all over the world are likewise helping KKL-JNF with its national mission of conserving and protecting the Carmel forests. In the past two months some 4,500 people have taken part in hundreds of volunteer groups that have come along to help with the work in the Carmel forests: soldiers, staff from Israeli companies in both the private and public sectors, schoolchildren and students, members of youth movements, delegations from abroad, families and many other members of the general public to whom the environment is important.
A whole network of KKL-JNF teams coordinates the volunteers’ labors in the forests, starting with the registration process on KKL-JNF Forest Hotline or through KKL-JNF offices worldwide. Northern Region Public Relations Representative Etti Azulai, guides, regional managers and foresters – everyone at KKL-JNF is involved, including fire-truck drivers Jamal and Alaa, who accompany the volunteers throughout their activities in the forest.
From Haifa and New York – Working together for Mount Carmel
Among the many volunteers we met on Sunday, February 13th was a group of 150 students from New York’s Solomon Schechter School, who had come to help KKL-JNF foresters with their work in Ofer Forest. The youngsters had come to the country with Israel Experience, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency that promotes educational tourism to Israel and organizes excursions and activities here for groups of all ages from all over the world.
Naama Degani, who directs programs for Israel Experience, told us that
collaboration with KKL-JNF plays a significant role in many of the organized visits to Israel. “It’s very important for people to get out into the field and connect to the land through work, which is always a major part of KKL-JNF activities,” she said.
The young American visitors arrived in two groups: twelfth-graders who have come to Israel for a period of two months, during which they will tour the country, attending various meetings and participating in community volunteer activities; and eighth-graders on a two-week introductory visit. Among the activities of this younger group was tree-planting at the KKL-JNF site in Neot Kdumim.
Delegations from this American school have been coming to Israel regularly for 25 years now, and theyalways take part in voluntary activities for the good of the community. “When we planned this current visit, it was obvious that the voluntary work would include helping to rehabilitate Mount Carmel,” said Dr. Elliot Spiegel, the school’s headmaster.
Upper School Principal Nellie Harris told us that the eighth-graders had held a fundraising drive in the US to raise money for the Carmel rehabilitation. And, like experienced fundraisers, these thirteen-year-olds did not just send money to Israel – they came along in person to see what was happening and show their commitment.
These young volunteers pruned, cut and cleared branches from the woodland, just like seasoned foresters. They were joined in their work by their contemporaries from Haifa’s Reali School, who are hosting the members of the American delegation during their stay in Israel. This is a reciprocal visit, as the Israeli youngsters were guests in the US around six months ago. Thirteen-year-old Allie Bernstein told us: “Visiting Israel together with friends from school and making new friends over here is a special feeling.”
Adi Peleg, also thirteen, is hosting Allie during her visit: “Meeting the American kids is very interesting, and the two groups hit it off straight away. We talked to them on the Internet before they came, and now we’re hosting them in our homes. They heard about the fire mainly from the news, but for us it’s the environment around our home that’s gone up in flames,” she said.
“There’s no better way to create a real connection between young people than to get them working together outdoors in natural surroundings,” said Sonya Hayon, grade coordinator at the Reali School. “It’s also an excellent way to teach them to conserve the environment and love nature. It’s much more effective than learned explanations in class.”
One of the people killed in the Carmel disaster was 16-year-old volunteer firefighter Elad Riven, a pupil at the Reali School whose death shocked and saddened the whole nation. The American youngsters wrote letters expressing their admiration for Elad and offering condolences to his family, and presented them to family members at a ceremony held during their stay in Israel.
Although most of the American visitors had been to Israel before on a number of occasions, for Sammie Kurtz this was her first visit. “I was very excited before I left,” she said. “My parents really envied me. When I heard in the US about the fire on the Carmel I didn’t believe that the day would come when I myself would work in the forest to help conserve it. I’m glad of
the opportunity to be here with friends from Israel, and, together with them, to do something important for the benefit of the country.”
In the meantime the older students were making energetic progress as they toiled through a nearby section of woodland. They have come here to work, not to play. One cut, another pruned, a third sawed. Matt Low, 17 years old, told us, “It’s a special feeling to visit Israel with a young Jewish group. It’s very important that we work together seriously, so as to prevent the next fire.”
The friends did not stop work for a moment, even when surprised by a sudden downpour. Together they cleared away the branches they had pruned, passing them from hand to hand until they were stacked on the path at the edge of the forest. Marissa Kelly has visited Israel four times already, but this trip was special, she said. “Thanks to the work in the forest I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t just watch what’s going on in Israel as an onlooker from the sidelines,” she explained. “Instead I’ve got to get involved and become a real part of what happens here.”
The tenth-graders arrived in Israel after a week-long visit to Poland, where they observed the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry from close up. “Since our visit to Poland we’ve got a better understanding of the State of Israel’s vital importance to the entire Jewish People,” said Asher Novick. “When I stand here in the Carmel Forest, at the spot where people were killed in the fire and tremendous damage was caused to the environment, I’m proud to have been given the chance to help Israel, even in a small way.”