Analysis: Heroism, resilience… and gnawing questions

Israel, with world help, is rising to fight the northern inferno. When the flames are finally doused, there will be some harsh lessons to learn.

December 3, 2010 13:54
Fire rages in the Carmel, Thursday

Carmel fire 311. (photo credit: Israel Police)

At midday on Friday, 25 hours after the start of the inferno that has taken more than 40 lives, forced 17,000 people from their homes and consumed vast swathes of the northern Israeli countryside, Israel’s pitifully under-equipped Fire Service offered the first real glimmer of hope.

“We do not have the fire under control, but we do have the situation under control,” said Hezi Levy, the Fire Service spokesman. “We have commanders deployed on the ground in all the key areas. We are properly coordinating our work, between the ground operations and the air forces. We have our priorities straight, focusing on preventing the blaze from destroying residential areas.”

Eyewitness: Days of awe and light, with a new dreadful significance
Background: 'You've never seen such flames'
Analysis: A tragedy waiting to happen

Levy stressed that new blazes were erupting all the time, the battle complicated by the day’s fierce winds. “The fire is still spreading. I’m not sure we’ll put it all out today,” he said. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in 21 years, and colleagues with a lot more years of experience than me say they’ve never, even had to fight anything like it.

“But,” he stressed, “we will beat it. We’ll fight it until we beat it.”

Fire-fighters from throughout the country have been fighting on raging hillsides amid clouds of thick smoke for hour after terrifying, vital hour. The fierce gusts of wind, sending flames leaping 20, 30 and 40 meters in unpredictable directions, mean this is constantly life-threatening work. Levy said some firemen and women have had to be pulled out of the field against their will by their commanders after hours at the front, simply to take a short break, rest, eat and drink a little.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praised the “divine heroism,” the spirit of sacrifice, displayed by the fire fighters and by the prisons service personnel, some 40 of whom who met their terrible deaths, burned alive on their stricken bus, as they dashed to try to evacuate a prison at risk from the blaze on Thursday afternoon. By the Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer as well, now in critical condition, having raced instinctively into the heart of the disaster. By other emergency personnel, some of them still missing and unaccounted for.

The army is deeply involved in the emergency effort. So too the air force, coordinating the air activity; the police; the various health organizations and Keren Kayemet LeYisrael. Diaspora Jewry is also organizing assistance campaigns.

Such heroism, such willingness to sacrifice and such resilience have long since been a dependable characteristic of Israel’s response to emergency. It was emblemized, too, by the almost surreal sights and sounds of President Shimon Peres singing “Maoz Tzur” and other Hanukka tunes in a Tirat Carmel community center with families of evacuated residents.

Time and again, when required to pull together, this country has risen to the challenge. And the emergencies never seem to let up.

A second source of comfort, amidst a fire-zone described by eyewitness as “apocalyptic,” has been the scale and speed of the international response to Israel’s pleas for help. Often, in recent years, it has been Israel that stretched out a hand to other nations in distress, to the victims of natural disaster -- most recently to earthquake victims in countries including Haiti and Turkey.

This time the roles were reversed, and the international community has not failed us. Netanyahu, who has correctly placed himself at the heart of the emergency operation, began making phone calls on Thursday afternoon, and by first light Friday the first overseas respondents were already being deployed. From Greece came emergency aircraft, little yellow machines that fly out to sea, fill up with water, speed courageously into the thickest smoke to empty their tanks, and repeat over and over. By mid-afternoon, 20 airplanes were at work, eight of them from overseas. From Bulgaria came 100 experienced fire fighters, telling interviewers through their smoke masks that they felt “proud” to be able to offer assistance.

Cyprus, Britain, the United States, Russia, Jordan, Egypt and many more. They all answered the call, helping as best they could. France quickly dispatched an emergency load of fire-fighting materials. Alerted by Germany, which sent its own medical assistance, even our erstwhile allies turned vicious critics, Turkey, commendably placed the humanitarian interest above political frictions and sent help. “I greatly appreciate this,” said Netanyahu, promising, “We’ll find a way to show how much.” He even spoke by telephone with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, their first such conversation since Netanyahu became prime minister, and said he was confident the interaction would yield a wider improvement in our chilly bilateral relations.

New neighborhoods were being threatened by new outbreaks of fire all afternoon Friday. Arsonists were arrested in at least two spots, viciously bent on exacerbating the nightmare.

The flames were closing in rapidly on the Yaarot HaCarmel Hotel, its fate resting largely in the hands of the winds. But there were other crumbs of comfort in the news that some areas had been less terribly blighted than had originally been believed. Kibbutz Beit Oren, notably, which on Thursday had been described in some quarters as all-but destroyed, was now said to still be “80 percent intact.” Its heartbroken residents had gathered to declare that they would rebuild no matter how terrible the damage; perhaps the work will be a little less daunting than they had anticipated. “My grandparents were among the founders of that kibbutz,” a friend reminded me. “I’m glad they’re not still around to see this.”

Once the flames are finally doused by the local and international heroes, and the heart-wrenching funerals endured, the dark side of this unprecedented national disaster will have to be confronted as well.

For now, the investigators are refusing to be drawn on how and why the fire was started – whether this was arson; whether it was nationalist, criminal, or just murderously negligent -- with the focus still on an illegal garbage dump near the Druse village of Usfiya. But the key questions are already starkly obvious.

First, could this blaze have been doused long before it escalated into the raging horror it became? Was the report to the emergency services filed at quarter-past-eleven on Thursday morning by flight instructor Alon Chaim -- who saw “smoke over the Carmel hills” near Usfiya, reported it to the authorities at Haifa Airport and assessed that it could have been put out at the stage by a single fire truck – unconscionably ignored? Would a swift response have spared Israel the worst fire it has ever seen.

And, second, why, for years, have the Fire Services’ entreaties for greater budgets – to replace and supplement dismally antiquated equipment and bolster manpower from the current 1,400 to 2,400 – been rebuffed? Why is it only now that the government is promising to purchase the fire-fighting planes the service had been begging for? Why were the stockpiles of fire-fighting materials so low? Why, after the Fire Service stated explicitly during its worst-case scenario emergency drill in May that it simply lacked the resources to confront precisely this kind of disaster, was that anguished warning ignored? Just days ago, on November 24, The Jerusalem Post had noted that “For decades there has been talk about equipping our fire-crews with amphibian planes capable of ferrying in water and dousing flames from above.” The editorial, written after a fire broke out high in Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower, pointed out that “Such planes aren’t only the answer for skyscrapers but also for the sort of brush fires that have decimated many Golan nature reserves in recent months. However,” we added bitterly, “these planes are costly and each day that passes disaster-free is all too evidently another day that the expense can be put off and out-of-mind.”

This weekend, Israel is rising heroically, resiliently, to confront yet another terrible emergency. But as so often in the past, the fightback is accompanied by that terrible sense that, with better precautions and better planning, maybe, just maybe, this could all have been prevented.

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