None of Israel’s key agencies is prepared for the next major potential fire disaster, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote in a special report released on Sunday.
The report called the November 2016 wave of 1,773 fires – 161 of which were sizable – the worst in the history of the state in terms of damage to property and the environment, burning 4,100 hectares of land.
Shapira said the fires hit certain densely populated areas particularly hard, damaging 1,900 apartments, 580 of which were completely destroyed, and damaging 123 cars.
While the cost nationwide was at least NIS 647 million, the report also said that only 11 of the fires were ultimately defined as terrorism-related for compensation purposes.
This came in spite of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan accusing terrorists of being behind the wave of fires.
Next, the report recalled the 2010 Carmel Forest fires in which 44 people perished.
According to the comptroller, one would think that “learning lessons” from these disasters “and the immediate implementation” of these lessons to prevent future disasters would be the minimum consolation that could come from them.
And yet, he wrote that the National Emergency Authority (RAHEL), the IDF Home Front Command, the police, the Israel Fire and Rescue Services and local authorities have failed to implement key recommendations from prior comptroller reports on the issue.
The report reviewed those agencies’ actions both during the November 2016 crisis and their readiness and absence of reforms from August 2017 to May 2018.
The comptroller called the dragging of feet on reforms and passing the ball on responsibility “depressing” and “particularly grave” in light of the likelihood of future waves of fire being as certain as “the writing on the wall.”
The report specifically criticized Erdan for failing to announce a national emergency and said that a single official must be the point person for dealing with mass fires. A statement from the Public Security Ministry said Erdan had tried to get fire response plans and regulations approved, but had been blocked by other ministries and authorities.
In several of the areas worst hit by mass fires in 2010 and 2016 – the Carmel Forest area, Haifa, Halamish and part of the Yehuda Regional Council – the report said there were insufficient water supplies to fight large fires and the key authorities were unaware of the undersupply.
The report found significant deficiencies regarding reimbursement to the general public for losses and addressing damage to forests from the fires.
Haifa and Zichron Ya’acov are engaged in a years-long legal battle over dividing up the receipt of reimbursement funds to areas which relate to both localities.
They appear stuck and no authority has stepped in from above to help streamline resolution of the situation, leaving both sides without the funds they require, said the report.
The Yehuda Regional Council has not received funds it needs because of a dispute with the Tax Authority over missing documentation it seeks.
These examples are part of a pattern in which the Tax Authority appears to have taken a passive or oppositional role, and failed to develop any global strategy to ensure reimbursement funds get sent to where they are needed within a reasonable period of time.
On the positive side, the report said that even if the delay was too long, with most of the smaller reimbursements sent out even after 18 months, around 97% of individuals who sought reimbursement funds had finally been paid a total of NIS 260 million by May. People in the Haifa area received about NIS 180 million of the reimbursements.
Shapira criticized the state and local municipalities’ failure to anchor into law updated regulations for handling large fires which had been fully drafted as early as 2014.
This means “there is an unconscionable situation where” national authorities with responsibility for mass fires lack the authority and a fluid mechanism for directing local authorities in their response to mass fires. They also lack any power or mechanism to oversee and enforce local authorities compliance with fire-related directives.
This is crucial as many local authorities have failed to: develop systemic plans and a defense line for mass fires; set up safety areas; or gather information about elderly and others who cannot self-evacuate or perform drills, according to the report.
In particular, many multi-story buildings are especially vulnerable to turning into death traps in the event of a fire, both for their residents and for those nearby.
Also, during the 2016 fire crisis, though local authorities often took ad-hoc emergency measures, they failed to announce a formal state of emergency that would have rallied and concentrated the energies of their responders.
Not only are local authorities unprepared and lacking information, but even central authorities responsible for mass fire responses are not ready or sufficiently informed to develop a satisfactory response.
During the 2016 fire crisis, for several hours Haifa’s command center was not hooked up in order to receive all information and to have a full picture with which to direct the response.
This meant that in one instance when Haifa’s central authorities ordered 10 buses to be sent to evacuate endangered residents, only one was actually sent.
Further, the authorities could not direct evacuating responders regarding safe routes to travel away from the spreading and evolving wave of fire.
Multiple schools in Haifa and elsewhere were evacuated without following standard protocols, such as ensuring a count of students and being accompanied by trained officials to ensure a safe evacuation.
In some cases, officials who were due to assist with efforts to combat the fire or evacuate others were even prevented by police from reaching their destinations due to miscommunication between the overlapping agencies.
Shapira said it was crucial for RAHEL, the IDF Home Front Command, the police, the fire department and local authorities to finally make the recommended reforms before more large fire disasters occur in summer 2019.
At the same time, Shapira explicitly thanked firemen and other responders on the front lines who often risk their lives to save civilians in danger from large fires.
Neither RAHEL nor the IDF Home Front Command had issued a response by press time.
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