(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.
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2,400, replenishing outdated equipment, linking firefighters’ salaries to those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.
12 years later, when this unprecedented blaze erupted, nothing had been
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
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even more outdated.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
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.
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.
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
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.