Jerusalem firefighters battle wildfire 370.
(photo credit: Fire Department)
Jerusalem firefighters have battled almost 5,000 fires in open areas in the past four months.
This represents a large increase over previous years when the firefighting department dealt with a total of 5,000 fires in buildings and open areas during the entire year. The fires have burned thousands of hectares of Jerusalem’s forests. Firefighters dealt with large fires every day last week from Wednesday to Saturday.
Approximately 60 percent of the fires in open areas are arson, according to Jerusalem Fire and Rescue spokesman Asaf Abras. Seventeen people, both Arab and Jewish have been arrested in connection with starting fires. Within that group, six Arab youth with nationalistic motives set fires with the intention of damaging Israel.
“This [is] a new type of terror,” said Fire and Rescue deputy spokesman Arik Abouloff. “They don’t need infrastructure or money to finance them or engineers that will bring explosives.
Any young child can take coals or a match and start a fire, there’s a lot of potential.
There is no doubt that in this situation, it can really create damage like any other terrorist attack. The residents are in danger and people can get hurt.” Abouloff noted that Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovich refers to this type of incident as “spontaneous terrorism” because they can inflict great damage against Israel with minimal preparation and cost.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby said the nationally motivated arsons were the result of a few youth working individually and were not organized attacks from a terrorist group.
But terrorism is only responsible for some of the cases of arson. Jewish teenagers in the Arnona neighborhood were arrested in July for setting dozens of fires in their neighborhood, partly from boredom. During the investigation, one of the youth admitted he set fires, and was inspired by the television show HaBorer (The Arbitrator), a Sopranos-style crime drama series based on the Israeli underworld.
Negligent hikers are also behind the rash of fires. On Saturday afternoon, two Jewish adults were arrested for letting a bonfire in the Sataf nature reserve get out of control, which burned 1 hectare (about 2.5 acres). Barbecues, trash burning, cigarettes, and nargila (water pipe) coals are other common reasons that brushfires start.
Beit Shemesh fire department spokesman Shmuel Amsalem said that the rainy winter meant that undergrowth blossomed in much larger amounts than previous years, when Israel was in the midst of a drought.
The extra underbrush, now dried out and extremely flammable at the end of the summer, also adds to the fire danger. Abouloff said that the large amount of fires was putting a large amount of strain the firefighting department.
The wave of fires in open areas started in April, but June and July were the heaviest months, with approximately 1,500 incidents each month. Firefighters sometimes return dozens of times to the same spot to put out arson attempts, or deal with an arsonist who set a number of fires in the same area.
Firefighters normally work shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, but many Jerusalemite firefighters were forced to work 48 hours on, 24 hours off this summer, Abouloff said. He added that the current situation is similar to the heavier workload during the Second Lebanon War.
The department is overtaxed despite the fact that the current security situation across the country is fairly quiet.
Additionally, the department is suffering from a lack of manpower, Abouloff said.
Though they received an additional 30 firefighters in the wake of the Carmel fire, there are only 170 firefighters in Jerusalem. Abouloff said the international standard is 1 firefighter for every 1,000 citizens.
Even with the additional firefighters, there is 1 firefighter for approximately 4,100 citizens in Jerusalem.
In Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu referenced the large number of fires, not only in Jerusalem but across the country.
“Not always, but many times there is a suspicion of arson and I would like to bring it to your attention that we are dealing with this effectively because we upgraded the fire and rescue service,” he said.
Netanyahu credited the firefighting planes with making a significant contribution towards stopping fires before they get out of control like the Carmel tragedy in 2010. There are six firefighting planes in operation across the country today and two more have been ordered, according to Amsalem.