Analysis: The impotent ‘If only’ of our northern inferno

Heroism, resilience, remarkable international assistance…and the terrible, gnawing sense that this disaster could have been prevented.

Night fire canyon 311 (photo credit: Channel 10 News)
Night fire canyon 311
(photo credit: Channel 10 News)
If only. If only.
The national heartbreak over Israel’s most terrible inferno – a fire that as of Saturday night had taken 41 lives, forced thousands of people from their homes, and consumed five million trees spread over 12,500 acres of the northern Israeli countryside – is compounded by the terrible recognition that almost all of its ravages, and all of its fatalities, could have been prevented.
Investigators’ preliminary suspicion is that the blaze still terrorizing the North was caused by the criminal negligence of youngsters in the Druse village of Usfiya, who neglected to douse a bonfire around which they had been joking and smoking late on Thursday morning. For want of a modicum of common sense and responsibility, our land is burning.
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Flight instructor Alon Chaim saw “smoke over the Carmel hills” near Usfiya at 11:15, and reported it to the authorities at Haifa Airport. The way it looked to him, it could have been put out at that stage by a single fire truck.
But it wasn’t. The inevitable commission of inquiry will doubtless eventually establish why not. The pitiful state of this country’s fire services – its massive under-staffing and utter lack of adequate equipment exposed these past three days in direct disproportion to the courage and tenacity of its personnel – was plainly a critical contributory factor from the very start.
As the blaze spread, it triggered the single incident in which all the fire’s 41 victims lost their lives – a rescue bid mounted by the Prisons Service authority to evacuate Damun jail in the Carmel Hills. With the fire spreading faster and more unpredictably than the scrambling emergency services had realized, the driver ferrying this rescue team found himself caught up amidst the flames and stopped his vehicle.
“We were asking ourselves, why doesn’t he keep going, why doesn’t he keep going?” recounted Ze’ev Shabtai, a resident of Kibbutz Beit Oren, who watched impotently from afar as the horror unfolded.
“Another 100 meters, and he would have been out of the flames,” Shabtai told the Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Saturday afternoon, as the minister came to see the incinerated wreckage of the bus and of the accompanying police vehicles.
Two heroic police officers, Lior Boker and Yitzhak Melina, men whose career instincts had been to race to the heart of any and every danger, lost their lives rushing to try to help the trapped passengers; a third officer, Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer, is at death’s door having done the same.
The other fatality, Elad Riven, a fire service volunteer aged all of 16, gave up his life too in a rush to the rescue that his tearful friends said Saturday was typical of his selfless personality.
At midday on Friday, 25 hours after the start of the inferno, Hezi Levy, the Fire Service spokesman, had offered the first real glimmer of hope.
“We do not have the fire under control, but we do have the situation under control,” Levy said then. “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.”
Levy stressed at the time that new blazes were continually erupting, the battle complicated by the fierce winds. “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, ever had to fight anything like it. But,” he stressed, “we will beat it. We’ll fight it until we beat it.”
Levy had warned Friday that “I’m not sure we’ll put it out today.” He was right. The treacherous flames twisted and burned through Saturday too, defying the fire-fighters from throughout the country who confronted it on raging hillsides, amid clouds of thick smoke, for hour after terrifying, vital hour.
Levy said some firemen and women 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.
“They are working utterly without concern for themselves,” said another senior fire officer late on Friday night.
In a series of public appearances on Friday and on Saturday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly praised the “divine heroism,” the spirit of sacrifice, displayed by the firefighters. By them and all who fought alongside them.
The army has been deeply involved in the emergency effort. So too the police, Magen David Adom, ZAKA, the various health organizations, JNF/Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, the Nature Reserves Authority, innumerable other volunteers and, notably, the air force, coordinating dozens of firefighting aircraft concentrated in a hazardous, narrow, smoke-filled patch of sky.
“The people of Israel are capable of uniting in times of crisis,” said Netanyahu several times.
Such heroism, indeed, 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 on Friday afternoon 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.
If that heroism, resilience and unity have been one source of comfort, amid a fire-zone described by eyewitnesses as “apocalyptic,” a second source 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 has 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 flew out to sea, filled up with water, sped courageously into the thickest smoke to empty their tanks, and repeated the action over and over. By mid-afternoon Friday, 20 airplanes were at work, eight of them from overseas.
Over Shabbat, with the international airborne rescue ranks swelled further, some 200 such water-drop missions were flown, with a great, lumbering Russian Ilyushin, dropping its 42,000 liters of water in just a few seconds on its once-an-hour circuit, spearheading operations. Early Sunday, a 747 US supertanker, with tanks holding 95,000 liters, was set to join the fight.
From Bulgaria, early Friday, came 100 experienced firefighters, telling interviewers through their smoke masks that they felt “proud” to be able to offer assistance.
Cyprus, Britain, the United States, Canada, Romania, Spain, Holland, Norway, Switzerland, Jordan, Egypt and many more were asked. They all answered the call, helping as best they could. France quickly dispatched an emergency load of firefighting materials. The Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas sent fire trucks and, said Netanyahu, real empathy.
Alerted by Germany, which sent its own medical assistance, even our erstwhile allies turned vicious critics, the Turks, commendably placed the humanitarian interest above political frictions and sent help before Israel had even directly asked them.
“I greatly appreciate this,” said Netanyahu, promising, “We’ll find a way to show how much.”
He spoke by telephone on Friday with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, their first such conversation since Netanyahu became prime minister.
Netanyahu amended his mantra on Saturday night to reflect the remarkable international solidarity: “The people of Israel are united, and lots of the nations of the world are united with us,” he said.
Improbably, indeed, Greek and Turkish pilots were flying in partnership above the skies of Israel. Officials in Jerusalem were even suggesting late Saturday that, behind the scenes, Israel and Turkey were now working to find a way to resolve the diplomatic crisis that has festered with Ankara since May’s bitter “Mavi Marmara” Gaza flotilla episode.
Once the flames are finally doused by all the local and international heroes, and the heart-wrenching funerals endured, the dark side of this unprecedented national disaster will have to be confronted head-on.
Chiefly, it appears thoroughly unconscionable that the Fire Services’ repeated entreaties for greater budgets – to replace and supplement equipment and bolster manpower from the current 1,400 to 2,400 – have been rebuffed for years.
Why is it only now that the government is promising to purchase the firefighting planes the service had been begging for? Why was Israel’s fleet of such firefighting aircraft discarded seven or eight years ago? 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? Why the indifference, especially when it is now being reported that the Fire Service has had to tackle some 1,200 forest fires in the past year alone, 60 percent of which were allegedly deliberate cases of arson. This time, too, there are suspicions that arsonists, acting out of nationalistic motives, in several places literally poured more fuel on the initial negligently caused fire.
Just days ago, on November 24, The Jerusalem Post 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-ofmind.”
This weekend, Israel has risen bravely to confront yet another emergency. But as so often in the past, the fightback has been accompanied by that dismal sense that, with better precautions and better planning, maybe, just maybe, this could all have been prevented.
Netanyahu said on Saturday that there was “no shame” once this blaze had gathered intensity – borne on the gusty winds, rapaciously devouring a countryside that has seen no rain for months – in Israel’s incapacity to fight alone, in our desperate, answered pleas for international assistance.
Perhaps not. The “shame” is that the inferno was not prevented or staunched far earlier.
And the challenge now is to ensure that Israel moves efficiently and effectively forward to sophisticated self-sufficiency, from the impotent, fatal, heartbreaking “if only” of the northern inferno of December 2010.