Slow growth

‘Metro’ takes a tour of the Carmel region a year after the fire.

Burnt trees after the Carmel Fire 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Burnt trees after the Carmel Fire 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ze’ev and Naomi Verchovsky, Ein Hod residents since 1975 who own and operate a pottery studio and gallery as well as a used bookstore, say they suffered greatly from last year’s forest fire.
“We lost half our home, thousands of books, and numerous pottery pieces, pottery wheels and other equipment,” says Ze’ev. “We had insurance on our home, but not enough on the studio and bookstore.
You can replace your home, but art objects are irreplaceable.”
However, Verchovsky says that overall, things are looking better.
“Ein Hod is now recuperating and becoming green again. Outside people need to know that it’s safe to come again and visit,” he says.
The Verchovskys’ bookstore and pottery studio are now located in a building alongside a small amphitheater while their home and studio are being repaired.
In addition of the tragic loss of 44 lives in last year’s Mount Carmel forest fire disaster, several communities in the region were damaged, including the artists’ colony of Ein Hod and nearby Kibbutz Beit Oren. I recently traveled to the region to see firsthand what progress has been made since the fire, what lessons have been learned, and to get a feel for the long-term impact of the disaster on the region’s residents and wildlife.
Ein Hod, my first stop, is located 20 km. south of Haifa, just off Highway 4. The village, which sits at the foot of the western slopes of the Carmel mountain range, has been the scene of previous wildfires. Ein Hod was not spared the ravages of last December’s conflagration, which partially or totally destroyed several homes and studios.
Most residents had to be evacuated until the fires could be contained.
Referring to a map of Ein Hod, Verchovsky points out places destroyed in the fire, and says not everyone came out of the ordeal so well.
“A lot of young people were renting rooms and apartments in some of these dwellings and they lost everything. They did not get that much compensation from the government – just around NIS 17,000 for personal effects and NIS 2,000 a month for two months to cover the rent,” he says.
Driving from Ein Hod to Kibbutz Beit Oren, located 10 km. away in a picturesque area often referred to as “little Switzerland,” is a sobering experience. On the right-hand side of the narrow, winding road leading up to the kibbutz, the terrain and foliage appear almost normal. On the left-hand side of the road, however, the view is very different. The dominant colors here are black and gray. Approaching Beit Oren, looking up and to the left I could see stark, burned-out apartment buildings sitting forlornly at the top of the hill. These buildings received a great deal of media attention during the December 2-6 wildfires.
I meet with the kibbutz secretary, Ariella Chen, and Sela Rotenberg, Beit Oren’s environmentalist.
“Forty houses and apartments and their contents were destroyed in the fire. Thirty-five are a total loss, while five have been repaired. For the first month, those who had to flee their homes were accommodated in our hotel, which was not damaged in the fire. Afterwards they were housed in temporary ‘caravillas,’ or prefab homes. Many of these displaced people are still living in these dwellings,” says Chen.
“Fortunately, there were no serious physical injuries, but many suffered from and are still receiving treatment for trauma. We hope that most of them will eventually recover. But many, especially children, suffered severe trauma due to the fire,” she adds.
Those who had to abandon their homes received compensation from the insurance company that deals with kibbutzim like theirs, she says; however, she adds that here, as at Ein Hod, the younger residents were among the hardest hit.
“Many people lost everything,” she says. “The situation has been harder for young, single members as they received less compensation than families.”
In addition to the loss of property, including the kibbutz youth club (which was totally destroyed) and at least five cars, around four hectares of kibbutz forest land and greenery were also destroyed in the fire.
“We have many pine trees... many of these burned like torches,” she says.
Sela Rotenberg, Beit Oren’s resident environmentalist and ad-hoc tour guide, takes me on a walking tour around the kibbutz to point out the damage.
Rotenberg, who has lived in Beit Oren for 23 years, begins our tour by showing me surrounding forest areas where the fire completely destroyed all or most of the vegetation, and other areas that seemed almost untouched.
“Here there were mostly pine trees,” he says, pointing to burned-out areas, “and that’s why they burned so quickly.”
“There were also very strong east winds that blew through the valley, causing the fires to burn even quicker,” he explains, pointing to areas now almost bare of live trees.
Far below the construction site can be seen a monument being built to commemorate the Prisons Service cadets killed when their bus caught fire.
Pointing to areas that still look green, he adds: “These areas have trees in them that better withstand fire. These trees include oak, carob, olive and other native vegetation. You can see that in areas not seriously burned, there are fewer pine trees. The wind was a big problem, as the fires spread through the tops of trees.
“This most recent fire was so hot that virtually everything burned up, even trees like oak. But still, by not replanting with pine trees, the forest will be more fire resistant,” he says.
Referring to the damage caused to parts of Beit Oren, including housing units that were destroyed, Rotenberg says, “The fire broke out at around 11 a.m., but people who lived in the damaged apartments didn’t believe the fire would reach them so quickly.
When the word came to abandon their homes, people couldn’t take much with them. My own son lived in one of these buildings.
“Most of the buildings... are still uninhabitable, although a couple have now been renovated. The government sent engineers to inspect them to see if they could be used as a base for rebuilding. The ones that cannot be restored, including the one my son was living in, are going to be demolished.”
Indeed, a building crew was on-site to start demolishing the unusable buildings. The new buildings that will go up in their stead will be constructed differently, and in a more modern fashion, says Rotenberg. In the meantime, the people who were living there are now living in the prefab caravillas, the same type that were built for people who were evacuated from Gaza.
“The government did this project very quickly; the caravillas were begun in early January and were ready for people to move into by mid-February, including electricity and plumbing. These homes each have a living room and two bedrooms.”
Rotenberg notes that the fire jumped from place to place, due to the prevailing winds, and says that this, in addition to the firefighters, was why much of the kibbutz was spared the worst damage.
“The firefighters came and stayed after people were evacuated, and they were able to keep the fire from damaging the kibbutz buildings more – except on the side where the apartments were located.”
As an example, he points out the burned-out youth center, located on the northeastern side of the kibbutz. Nearby buildings were not damaged.
“The youth center’s clubhouse will have to be completely rebuilt,” he says.
The neighboring Hai Bar nature reserve, established more than 30 years ago, Rotenberg considers to be nothing more than a large zoo; the animals raised there can never be released to live in the wild, he says.
He says that many wild animals, the larger ones in particular, fared better than many thought they would, however, he is less than optimistic about the future of area wildlife.
“The larger animals were in most cases able to run away, or fly away in the case of birds, to escape the flames. But the forest and bushy areas were badly damaged and this is a big problem for the wildlife that the Carmel Nature Reserve is trying to reintroduce here.”
He believes it will not be possible now to reintroduce certain animals into the wild there that have long since become extinct in the area.
“Some animals, like wild boar for example, have a much better chance of surviving here than animals like gazelle and deer, which need large natural areas to roam in. When these animals try to cross a road or fencing, it is a real problem for them.”
As to the future, Rotenberg is cautiously optimistic, although he says damage to the forest resulting from accidents, negligence, or war, can’t really be prevented.
On a more philosophical note, he adds, “There is a lot of pressure on forest areas from the public who want to visit them and enjoy themselves there on picnics, hiking trips, etc.”
Omri Bone, the Jewish National Fund’s northern regional director, is less optimistic regarding how long it will take the region to rejuvenate itself.
“One year after the huge Mount Carmel fire, blackened, dead trees still cover the majority of the burned area. The professional committee of the Environmental Protection Ministry decided to let the burned area rest for one year and very limited rehabilitation activity was carried out within this area.
Underneath the dead trees one can already see dense regeneration of pine seedlings. Three thousand hectares were destroyed in the fire. Many of the burned stands were 50 to 100 years old, and we expect that this is the time it will take for the forest to rehabilitate.”
Bone adds that since 90 percent of the burned area was a natural forest, the JNF prefers, as much as possible, to rely on natural regeneration processes.
“Planting will be carried out to enrich the forest with indigenous species such as oaks and carobs and planting of olive trees in restoration of ancient agricultural terraces. The majority of the burned area was covered by a natural forest of Aleppo pine (native to the Mediterranean region) and kermes oak. We can’t change this natural forest composition. But we believe that is essential to reduce forest density through a series of intensive thinning [measures].”
Bone points out that the hazard of forest fires increases with forest maturation and biomass buildup, as well as with global warming impacts such as severe, prolonged droughts.
“Unfortunately, when such a huge conflagration develops, it is very difficult to achieve control over such fires and no fire breaks or ‘supertanker’ can change this fact. So people living in the area need to prepare their homes and yards to contain limited flammable fuels and materials. It is extremely important that flammable materials are removed from an area of 10 meters from house walls,” says Bone.
Bone and the JNF believe it is important to continue to increase biodiversity and spacing between forest trees.
“We need to continue to reduce fuel buildup on the forest floor and develop fire breaks. It is important to continue to develop natural fire suppression capacity through specified forest fire ‘engines,’” he says.