'Israel has much to learn about controlling fires'

As Ayalon thanks foreign delegations, international firefighters were shocked by Israel's complete lack of preparedness for forest fires.

December 8, 2010 06:46
3 minute read.

Ayalon with int'l firefighters 311. (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)

A day after the devastating Carmel forest fire that destroyed five million trees was finally extinguished, Israel planted 18 saplings in the region as a symbol of gratitude to the 18 foreign delegations that came to its aid, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told hundreds of foreign firefighters at an official send-off luncheon in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

“This was the most devastating fire in the history of Israel, and your help shows the strength of the human spirit,” Ayalon said. “These trees represent the roots all of you have now in Israel.”

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The firefighters, dressed in clean uniforms and clearly happy to be heading home starting that evening, praised the cooperation among the various delegations, as well as Israel’s quick decision to ask for international assistance.

“I was in the helicopter yesterday and I saw how much damage there was on the ground, and I don’t think anyone could have handled this on their own,” said Col. Stefan Balsiger, commander of the Swiss delegation, which numbered 35 and brought with it three Cougar helicopters. “You need friends to fight a... disaster like this.”

Spanish High Officer Roberto de Domingo, who arrived with five aircraft and 22 firefighters, echoed British, Swiss, and French firefighters who said they had never before seen a fire of this magnitude, saying no amount of preparation could have averted this disaster. “These things you can only learn after you’ve suffered them,” de Domingo said.

But other firefighters said they were shocked by Israel’s complete lack of preparedness for forest fires and its unwillingness to have firefighters on the ground following the use of aircraft.

“We see that you didn’t do anything about prevention,” said pilot Stelios Kotzikas from Cyprus, who came with a nine-member delegation and said his country had battled three fires the same size as the Carmel blaze over the past three years.

Kotzikas suggested that Israel adopt Cyprus’s anti-forest fire methods, like clearing 100-meter-wide strips of trees and underbrush, and using bulldozers to clear out burned areas to prevent fires from reigniting.

“During the firefighting, you didn’t bring any bulldozers to clean up,” he said. “This was a big surprise to us; it was something unbelievable. You should have a minimum of 20 bulldozers, and we saw only one.”

As one of the first international delegations in the air, the planes from Cyprus were dropping water on the fire by 9 a.m. on Friday morning.

Kotzikas said that as more aircraft arrived over the course of the day, the skies grew increasingly chaotic and the Israel Air Force had difficulty coordinating the activity. He added, however, that confusion over positions and radio frequencies was cleared up by Saturday morning, and praised the IAF’s ability to adapt quickly to the situation.

But even graver, some firefighters said, was the lack of coordination between aircraft and crews on the ground. “When airplanes attack, ground forces must move in closer to extinguish the fire completely, because the helicopter cannot extinguish a fire by itself,” Kotzikas explained.

At a press conference on Saturday morning, while the flames were still raging, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stressed that the battle to stop the fire would be determined in the air. Indeed, aside from the 92-member delegation from Bulgaria, the personnel from abroad had been trained to fight fires from above.

Lt. Kostas Tzakiris, from the 70-member Greek delegation, said he believed Israel’s unwillingness to put crews “inside the fire” stemmed from the high death toll at the outset.

“It’s not that you don’t have experience,” Tzakiris said, “but you’re afraid to do this because you’re afraid there will be more victims.”

The coming days promise a blistering state comptroller’s report followed by months of investigations and finger pointing. Yet the mood at the send-off luncheon was upbeat.

“It’s very exciting and it’s very emotional to see the outpouring of support and great sympathy we get from all these nations around the world,” Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post as he moved from table to table to personally thank the departing crews.

Spanish firefighter de Domingo agreed.

“This is the part that really makes me so happy,” he said. “To know people are capable of working together happily, putting aside color and ideology. It’s something you wouldn’t expect to happen in this reality.”

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