Here's how Israel can fight forest fires

KKL-JNF’s Climate Center is employing advanced technology to fight the climate crisis – and trees are a major part of the solution

 FOREST FIRES present a growing danger in Israel. (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
FOREST FIRES present a growing danger in Israel.
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)

The climate crisis has led to drastic weather changes in many parts of the world, causing natural disasters and widespread forest fires.

Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund has been working on this issue for many years and is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with an emphasis on preserving critical assets that nature has to offer – the forests and the plant world. 

“There are extreme climate changes taking place in the world,” says Lior Gottesman-Fischer, project manager of KKL-JNF’s Climate Center and coordinator of climate issues at KKL-JNF. “Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s temperature has risen by one degree, and if it rises another degree, life may change beyond repair. We are in the midst of an event that can be defined as the sixth extinction, only that, unlike in the past, this is due to human activity and the burning of fuels.” 

Gottesman- Fischer explains that the fuels we burn and release into the atmosphere come from buried trees and bones that underwent underground processes that took millions of years until they became fossil fuels, such as oil. The burning of those fuels releases the carbon that was trapped in those trees into the atmosphere.

“These gases are trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere,” she adds, “and as the coverage solidifies, they are trapped and can’t get out. To prevent a disaster, we need to stop the climate crisis and ensure that the amount of emissions equals the amount of absorption by 2050, which is where trees play an important role.”

Just as the burning of trees, whether for clearing forests or burning fuel, is a significant part of the problem, trees themselves are a major part of the solution to the climate crisis.

“Companies that emit greenhouse gases today are supporting the planting of trees and carbon offsetting,” says Gottesman-Fischer. “In an extreme state of climate change, the entire system will get out of control, the polar glaciers will melt and expose more dark areas, which will make the temperature rise even more, sea levels will rise, and the currents will cool the Earth less. As a result of global warming, the forests, such as the Amazon rain forest, become drier and burn more easily. When they burn, more carbon is released into the atmosphere.” 

Gottesman-Fischer says there are two main ways to deal with the crisis. One is to limit emissions by switching to renewable energies, consuming less and increasing the absorption of what is emitted into the atmosphere (mitigation). The other is to prepare for what is to come (adaptation).

“The climate crisis is already here, and we feel it in the scorching summers,” she notes. “It means we must prepare for fires and extreme weather events like floods, wildfires and droughts. Israel is in the Middle East, which is a hot spot and is more sensitive to the climate crisis.”

Gottesman-Fischer reports that KKL-JNF has been operating for 120 years in the core areas of today’s climate crisis. In the past year, the organization decided to take matters a step further, and the Climate Center was established, headed by Gottesma-Fischer.

“We integrate climate in all of KKL-JNF’s divisions: water, land, community, education and more,” explains Gottesman-Fischer. “In addition, we lead climate-oriented projects, some of which are part of KKL-JNF’s core activities, such as urban forestry or climate preparedness in rural areas. KKL-JNF wants to reduce emissions, and the forest is the primary means of accomplishing this. Forests are also a solution to reduce the temperature in specific areas, and they provide protection from floods, improve air quality and provide leisure space and protection from the sun. The forest does a great deal.”

Sensors for detecting forest fires

Dr. Doron Merkel, KKL-JNF’s chief scientist, emphasizes that the climate crisis is ultimately related to trees, from burning them as fossil fuels to cutting down and clearing forests for farmland and construction areas.

“The global forest is at the heart of the story,” he explains. “It is the main tool in the hands of humanity that can be used to correct the situation. If more forests are planted, then carbon will be extinguished in these forests, and the balance that has been disturbed will slowly return. Of course, we need to stop burning fuel and switch to renewable energies; but in order to increase the absorption of carbon, we need to stop the eradication of forests and add more of them.

“The forest affects the climate crisis, but it is also affected by it,” he adds. “In our region, the main consequence is the rise in temperatures. Since the 1970s, the average temperature in the Middle East has increased by two degrees. That’s why we get a higher frequency and intensity of heat waves. The forest is part of the solution, but today it is in danger.”

Merkel explains that the threat of fires is increasing in areas with rising temperatures. “Just as we see in California, there were large forest fires last summer in southern Europe, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus and also in Israel. We remember the great fire in the Jerusalem Hills. The risk of fires is increasing.” 

KKL-JNF, as the Israeli forestry authority and as a significant green body that manages large areas, made a strategic decision to actively participate in the fight against the climate crisis.

“We are working to reduce the risk of fires because, unfortunately, they cannot be completely prevented, but it is a priority,” says Merkel. 

“We are working with local authorities and regional councils to help reduce emissions and prepare for climate change. In addition, we have established climate innovation centers engaged in research and development, and, together with the government, are promoting events and awards on climate issues. One of them is a prize we are promoting with the Israel Innovation Institute for technological solutions to extreme climate issues. Many of the proposals we received deal with the early detection of forest fires using satellites, drones and special sensors.” 

 FOREST IN the Gilboa mountain range. (credit: ALBATROSS) FOREST IN the Gilboa mountain range. (credit: ALBATROSS)

One thousand fires per year

Rami Zaritsky, director of KKL-JNF’s fire department, explains that it deals with 800 to 1,000 fires yearly in KKL-JNF areas alone.

“KKL-JNF operates a firefighting system of 25 fire engines and observation towers nationwide, from the north to the south of the country,” says Zaritsky.

“Winter, the wet period in Israel, is getting shorter,” he explains. “It starts late and ends early, and the reduction in precipitation increases the possibility of fires in the area. The greater the amount of moisture in the organic matter in the forest, the harder it is for it to ignite. Therefore, we have almost no fires during the winter, certainly not from nature. The two peak periods for forest fires in Israel are at the beginning of summer and toward the end of summer, in the fall. When we have trees that are thirsty for water, with little moisture, it is easier for them to ignite, and the fire will spread faster and with greater intensity.”

To prove his point, Zaritsky mentions the fire in the Jerusalem Hills last year and the one on the Carmel in 2010.“That year, not a single drop of rain fell on the Carmel for eight months before that fire,” he says. “In the Judean Hills, the story is similar. When there are strong winds and a low percentage of moisture in the organic matter, the fire will spread quickly, and that’s what happened.”

Zaritsky explains that in Israel, unlike other countries, forests are used primarily for recreation rather than a place for growing crops, so there are many means to prevent the spread of fire. “KKL-JNF invests resources in pruning and planning forests to reduce volume and make it difficult for fire to spread. In addition, buffer zones are used, mainly near settlements, and there are also animals, such as cows, sheep and goats, that eat the grass and reduce the amount of organic matter in the forest. At the same time, we established a mobile system, using drones, overlooking the areas mainly during extreme weather periods.”

KKL-JNF’s chief forester, Gilad Ostrovsky, is responsible for establishing these buffer zones that help prevent the spread of fires.

“There are two types of buffer zones in which we operate,” he explains.

“The first is around communities and facilities, in order to protect human life. Even if the fire spreads, it will stop or fade considerably and will not cause damage within the community.

“In addition, we are establishing buffer zones along forest roads, and we are thinning the vegetation on both sides so that firefighters can enter during a fire without being trapped, and there will be an orderly entry and exit for vehicles. This does not prevent fires entirely, but when they do occur, it allows them to be extinguished easily, and it also protects the facilities. 

 KKL-JNF firefighters combat a blaze. (credit: Yehuda Peretz, KKL-JNF Photo Archive) KKL-JNF firefighters combat a blaze. (credit: Yehuda Peretz, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

“At the same time, we are developing models and using remote sensing and optical means, such as satellites and other tools, which allow us to analyze vegetation, its level of dryness, and other components,” Ostrovsky adds. “On this basis, we prepare risk maps and know how to direct our efforts in forestry and firefighting work.” 

Ostrovsky explains that part of his work involves investigating fire sites after the fire has been extinguished.

“The first thing we do is perform a safety check,” he says. “A few days after the fire, we inspect the public sites in the area, such as parking lots or nearby roads, and carry out preventive measures so that trees do not fall on the facilities, whether cutting down burnt trees or removing obstacles from the area.” 

He notes that the renewal of vegetation after a fire is carried out is a gradual procedure, with a preference for natural regeneration processes.

“We need to see how the terrain recovers,” he explains. “There are trees in the forest that know how to regenerate, from the root, from the trunk, and from the branches, and we see signs of blooming after one winter. We carry out periodic surveys that examine renewal, support those trees that manage to regenerate, and, when necessary, after several years, if we see that the pace of renewal is not increasing, we plant new trees. 

“The challenge of fires is getting worse and more extreme in this era of climate change, and we are preparing in all areas.”

Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.

This article was written in cooperation with KKL-JNF