My Word: Burning issues

This is not about saving trees and wildlife in the North. It is about making sure the country, its citizens and its lifestyle are safe – so that future generations will also have something to sing and dream about.

Burnt trees after the Carmel Fire 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Burnt trees after the Carmel Fire 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
I opened my eyes, it was the Hebrew month
of Shvat,
I saw above me one small bird
The blue of the sky and a single cloud
And I saw the evergreen mountain

The mountain that is green all year round,
I still dream and ask to
breathe your air as in days of old
and lie in your shadow, Carmel
‘The Evergreen Mountain,” by iconic Hebrew lyricist Yoram Taharlev, is both a paean to the Carmel and an ode to lost innocence. Taharlev describes “mischievous childhood games” and “chasing butterflies” but also youths going into the army “big, but perplexed” and returning “from the wars as brothers.”
As the song develops, so does the main voice: “Our children are now young men and our parents’ hair is white.” Nonetheless, says the song, every morning “as we look at our brother, the evergreen mountain, we will still feel young.”
The lyrics, themselves evergreen, came to mind as the country braced itself for the anniversary of the Carmel Disaster this month. It was one of those events so traumatic that those two words in Hebrew “Ason Hacarmel” are scorched into the Israeli collective psyche, like the Helicopter Disaster, the Versailles Hall Disaster or the Yom Kippur War.
A year has passed. For the families of the 44 victims, it has passed painfully slowly – every day a reminder of what they lost. The same is true for those whose homes and belongings went up in flames.
For the rest of the country – distracted by the missiles in the South, terror attacks, the social protests and the saga of Gilad Schalit – the time has gone faster. While we were looking elsewhere, flowers began to bloom again on the Carmel; saplings started to shoot up; wildlife returned.
In one of those strange ironies of nature, the fire that destroyed some 9,900 acres of forest also provided fertile ash for regrowth.
That’s why, for the most part, we were able to put the tragedy and devastation behind us and focus on rejuvenation.
After all, every disaster we survive serves to strengthen us. Or should do.
As I noted last year, the Carmel Disaster was a turning point. It was the Fire and Rescue Services’ equivalent of the Yom Kippur War. They fought bravely and eventually won the battle, but they had been caught unprepared and ill-equipped. And the voices of the dead call out from the scorched earth.
Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shahar Ayalon, appointed after the disaster, pointed out last week that if the response time to emergencies is reduced, so is the damage. Or, in his words: “The Carmel fire, as well as other fires, could be extinguished with a glass of water when they’re small.”
The emergency services, like the government that funds and oversees them, are judged by two measures: preparedness – as in the ability to avert a disaster – and the response when an emergency is happening.
As in cases of thwarted terror attacks or wars prevented, it’s not always easy for the general public to see or measure success. Failure, on the other hand, is obvious.
And in this case, just looking at the burned-out shells of homes, scorched paths and wounded patches of once beautiful forest, the failure is as evident as a physical scar. Perhaps it’s less stark than a year ago, slightly less painful to see, but it’s still there marring the face of the country.
The loss of innocence is even harder to handle.
Everyone lost a sense of security. Forty-four people died in the flames on the Carmel – ignited by two youths smoking a nargila. Clearly another war, terror attack or even a few Katyusha rockets – like the four fired on northern Israel from Lebanon last week – could result in damage of a scope we don’t want to imagine.
Ayalon’s glass-of-water analogy notwithstanding, we all know we are facing even worse threats than scrub and forests made brittle by another dry winter. Ayalon, who previously proved to be one of the Israel Police’s most able and imaginative officers, also knows this.
So do Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose ministry is responsible for the Fire Service, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, each of whom has been required this year to say where the buck stops.
Every few years, the state comptroller has issued a report warning that the fire service is dangerously illequipped and under-funded. Similarly, the reports on the lack of readiness in the event of an earthquake are published regularly, and every so often a small tremor takes place which shakes some of the dust of the pile of warnings stacked on shelves in various ministries.
Not all emergencies are man-made. The response to emergencies, however, always rests in our hands. So, too, does preparedness.
The disaster, as all disasters in Israel, brought out the best in people: Months before the term “social justice” became the summer’s catchphrase, people proved they could pull together to help others; the Diaspora began emergency fund-raising; and foreign firefighters rushed to our aid. Temporarily, even Turkey and the Palestinians put aside their differences with Israel and helped fight the inferno on the historic mountain range. Perhaps the most positive thing at the time was the way it proved that the whole world isn’t against us all the time, as most Israelis occasionally suspect.
This was war, a battle between man and fire – perhaps the most primeval fear we have.
Before the flames had died down, many were throwing the blame on Yishai, as if he personally had lit the match, or personally directed the bus carrying Prison Service staff into the furnace which killed more than 30 of them. A year later, Danny Rosen, partner of Haifa Police chief Ahuva Tomer who perished in the blaze, wrote to the prime minister saying Yishai would not be welcome at the memorial ceremony.
Rosen was angry with Yishai, the leader of the religious Shas party, or perhaps even with God. Yishai certainly makes a convenient – even conventional – target in Israel. But blaming him, and only him, will not help prevent another disaster. For that, you don’t need to see just who is to blame but what: Changing procedures is more essential than watching the heads of politicians roll.
If planting trees was the hallmark of the Zionist endeavour, the fire was a warning that care still needs to be taken. Out of the flames comes a chance to ascertain what can be done to prevent an even greater tragedy.
This is not about saving trees and
wildlife in the North. It is about making sure the country, its citizens and its lifestyle are safe – so that future generations will also have something to sing and dream about.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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