The State Comptroller, the Carmel fire, and 44 deaths

The blaze that spread through the forest on Mt Carmel in December, 2010 was distinctive among the fires that occur frequently in the dry brush and forests of Israel after the long hot summer. It spread into several villages and destroyed homes, and caused 44 deaths. Most were prison guard trainees trapped in a bus on a narrow mountain road on their way to help with the evacuation of a prison that was threatened by the fire. Also killed were three ranking police officers and two firefighters, including a teenage volunteer.

The magnitude of the disaster became a major project for the State Comptroller, who has now published a report a few days in advance of finishing his term of office. During the year and one-half since the fire, several draft reports (provided to governmental units and individuals subject to criticism, meant to provide them opportunities to comment) have attracted considerable media attention. Commentators speculated that the State Comptroller''s report and recommendations would be sufficiently devastating to require the resignation of government ministers who had failed to act in ways to prevent such a disaster.
Involved in the chronic nature of forest fires is not only the long dry summer, but Israeli demographics. While some fires begin spontaneously and some from irresponsible campers, a significant number are set by Arabs as expressions of their nationalism.
The State Comptroller''s long and detailed report deals not only with the tragedies of the deaths, but with a number of failures that contributed to the problems of dealing with the extensive fire, some of which may have contributed to the deaths. Several of these failures had been the subject of previous State Comptroller reports, and remained uncorrected. Several remain uncorrected until now, despite earlier reports on the Carmel fire by the State Comptroller and other officials, and claims by ranking politicians to having dealt with them.
  • The failure of those responsible to clear the forest of the dried brush and other material likely to provide tinder for whatever would be the proximate cause of a fire.
  • The multiplicity of fire fighting brigades, responsible to a number of local authorities, plus the organization with responsibility for forest management, and the police having responsibility for traffic control near a fire, with a lack of coordination among all these bodies.
  • The lack of professional standards among the fire brigades, pertaining to appropriate measures of recruiting, physical examinations, training, and maintaining the standards of personnel.
  • A lack of resources to provide an adequate compliment of firefighters and equipment, due partly to the actions of national ministries, and partly to the local authorities and fire brigades that had resisted demands from the national ministries to reform themselves. Involved here are jealousies among organizations and individuals reluctant to surrender their control over resources, decisions about who would be hired, and who would be promoted to key positions in the fire brigades. Also involved are the failure of the organization with responsibility for forest management to have on hand adequate supplies of the chemicals used in firefighting, and the lack of sufficient trucks and planes to deal with extensive fires.

The principal villains in the media coverage of this complex story are the Minister of Finance, who demanded a reform of the fire brigades as a condition for releasing funds that had been budgeted for them, the Minister of Interior, who failed to assert his authority to demand reform and coordination among the units involved in firefighting, and the Prime Minister for failing to note the potential for disaster evident in various reports about the poor state of firefighting organization, personnel, and equipment.

All of this would be the stuff of conventional criticism, most likely put on the shelf after a day of media attention, if the fire had only burned forest and brush, and had destroyed a number of homes in several villages. What makes it a political conflagration is 44 deaths, and family members concerned for justice or revenge. While some close relatives have sided with the ministers involved, others have employed one of the country''s most distinguished attorneys in order to begin a suit in the Supreme Court meant to force the dismisal of one or another minister.
In a case like this it is necessary to reconsider the epigram that success has many parents while failure is an orphan. This failure has numerous parents. Each received mention in the State Comptroller''s reports, but each can point to others in order to share the blame and minimize that accepted by any one of them. Deciding on parentage here has nothing equivalent to a DNA test to assign specific responsibility, or any other device to weigh accurately the share that each must accept.
Another epigram popular in Israel warns against blaming the lowest on the chain of command for a disaster, and to assign responsibility to commanders who failed to plan appropriately.
In this case, however, the blame for deaths may actually rest somewhere down the chain of command, where individuals did not act appropriately to prevent the bus carrying prison guards from traveling on a road likely to be dangerous.
The State Comptroller''s report notes, close to the beginning of its summary:
"It will be emphasized at this stage that we do not claim that the Minister of Finance or the Minister of Interior are responsible for the 44 deaths during the terrible fire on the Carmel. That claim would be wrong in the extreme, without any basis." (p. 6)
Nonetheless, one may conclude that the lack of resources provided to the various units with firefighting responsibility, as well as the lack of reforms that had been suggested times in the past, contributed to the disaster. Among the administrative faults were failures to establish a central command upon the outbreak of the fire with sufficient means of observation and communication in order to provide detailed and timely information to officials with responsibilities for controlling fire brigades and the closure of roads likely to be dangerous (Chapter 1).
From these failings there might be linkages to the responsibilities of the Interior Minister and Finance Minister, or even the Prime Minister to press their underlings to attend to problems likely to exist in the event of a major fire.
Fairness is this case is elusive in the extreme. The Supreme Court will express itself in one way or another, even if it is to avoid comment or action. Some family members may rest with their day in court, but others not. This can become an iconic event that provides the stuff of further official reports, media commentary, seminar papers, dissertations, unresolved allegations, and unrelieved bitterness.