The fire we all saw coming

We have an obligation to those who perished to do everything within our power to ensure that no citizen is needlessly exposed to this kind of danger.

December 4, 2010 23:35
4 minute read.
Firefighters try to put out flames in the Carmel.

fire fighters_311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As the fire in the north continues to rage, the muchrepeated description in public discourse of the sad state of our firefighting services has become a litany of prolonged neglect.

Israel has 347 firetrucks, but it needs 200 more. Israel has 1,500 firefighters – one per 6,000 citizens, compared to a ratio of 1 to 1,000 in most Western countries. Israel, which prides itself on being one of the world’s most adroit and generous countries in disaster relief, has no special firefighter planes. A decade ago the air force discontinued the use of Yasour helicopters that could fill up containers with seawater while flying low over the Mediterranean – apparently the seawater and the smoke from the fires damaged the Yasours.

Now Israel is dependent on others, including a huge 747 that was flying in overnight Saturday from America, capable of holding 80,000 liters of water or fire-retarding chemicals.

Already in 1998 the Ginosar Committee recommended beefing up the firefighters’ ranks to 2,400, replenishing outdated equipment, linking firefighters’ salaries to those of police and enforcing an early retirement age of 55 (a fireman nets between NIS 8,000 and NIS 9,000 for a 60- hour month). The committee also called for reorganizing the forces, presently split up into regional commands funded by a combination of state and municipal budgets, and placing them under a single command rubric funded entirely by the state, similar to the police.

But 12 years later, when this unprecedented blaze erupted, nothing had been done.

In 2007, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued a critical assessment of Israel’s firefighting capabilities in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. A barrage of Katyusha missiles fired by Hizbullah from south Lebanon could spark enormous fires in the North’s many dense forests, warned the comptroller, and the firefighting infrastructure was “the weak link” in the chain of rescue and first aid entities tasked with dealing with this potential danger.

Nevertheless, while other home front forces were revamped in line with lessons learned from the war, firefighters continued to be neglected. At the beginning of this year, the comptroller issued a follow-up report, distributed among the relevant ministries, warning that firefighting services were deteriorating as the population continued to grow and old equipment became even more outdated.

In response, on July 4, at the initiative of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is responsible for our firefighting capabilities, the government transferred NIS 100 million of a requested NIS 500m. But it takes time to buy new equipment.

Now, with all of our limited firefighting capabilities concentrated in the North, if – heaven forbid – an additional major blaze were to flare up elsewhere, our firefighters would be even less capable of combating it.

HINDSIGHT HAS 20-20 vision, however, and it is not yet clear whether even the best-equipped firefighting force could have stopped the rapid progress of a fire that was aided by a deadly combination of strong winds and ample combustible material created by one of Israel’s worst droughts ever. And the depleted supply of fire retardants was a result of two busy months of fires in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and elsewhere.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted that the time for finger-pointing will come soon enough. In fact, it has already begun. Our understaffed firemen, buttressed by police, IDF soldiers and numerous other medical and paramedical personnel, continue to struggle with the enormity of the inferno, shoulder-to-shoulder with a diverse international contingent of airborne firefighters.

Thousands have been evacuated from their homes; many of them have been taken in by fellow citizens in a spontaneous wave of generosity.

There are over 41 fatalities and dozens injured, some struggling to stay alive. One of them is Ahuva Tomer, commander of the Haifa district police, who bravely led a failed attempt to rescue a busload of trainee prison guards.

Terribly, most of these trainees, who represent all walks of Israel’s culturally diverse society – Jews, Muslims and Druse – were burned alive when their bus caught fire as they raced to evacuate prisoners from the fire-threatened Damun penitentiary in the Carmel hills.

Those mourning the deceased must be comforted, and those anxiously praying for the speedy recovery of their loved ones must be given support. At times like this all our internal tensions – religious and secular, Jew and Arab, and even our international tensions with countries such as Turkey – seem petty, as human beings unite to fight a disaster that blazes a path of destruction and death that knows no distinctions.

Nevertheless, when this disaster is history, the time for reckoning will come. We have an obligation to those who perished, were injured or suffered emotional or financial loss to do everything within our power to ensure that no citizen is needlessly exposed to this kind of danger.

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