'Education a vital tool in fire prevention'

Int’l conference on climate change examines ways to reduce risk while maintaining lush park lands.

Burnt trees after the Carmel Fire 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Burnt trees after the Carmel Fire 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Without the active participation and inclusion of local communities in forest-fire prevention activities, catastrophes like the blaze that overtook the Carmel region in December 2010 are more likely to occur, both intentionally and unintentionally, experts said Wednesday.
“The name of the game is risk management, and we want to reduce the risk,” said Yeshayahu Bar-Or, deputy director-general of the Environmental Protection Ministry. “As long as there is a forest, there is a risk for fire.”
Bar-Or was speaking at the second day of a two-day conference in Nir Etzion called “Climate Change and Forest Fires in the Mediterranean Basin: Management and Risk Reduction.”
The first day focused on sharing scientific knowledge on the subject, and the second day on transforming science into policy into practice.
Organized by the Environmental Protection Ministry, along with Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel-Jewish National Fund and the CIRCLE-2 Climate Impact Research and Response Coordination for a Large Europe network, the conference brought in national and international experts on fire prevention to discuss preemptive measures a fire-prone region might take to minimize its dangers.
Ministry chief scientist and conference organizer Dr. Sinaia Netanyahu said that such a conference was crucial to the ministry’s ongoing research into adaptation to climate change.
“There is a lot of room for education about what should be done to prevent unintended fires,” Bar-Or said, noting that only 50 percent of fires are actually intentional.
Among the measures he said authorities must take was the creation of fire buffer zones between nature reserves and villages, including thinning out pine tree density and diversifying wildlife so fire could not spread as easily.
Since the Carmel fire, for example, KKL-JNF has invested a total of $7 million creating “fuel breaks” – buffer zones – between forests and human civilization in 75 places throughout the country, according to KKL-JNF head forester David Brand.
Meanwhile, experts agreed that by encouraging local shepherds to continue their age-old trade, park officials would have a ready-made cure for moderating woodland undergrowth and shrubbery, which are often fuel for fire.
“There are fewer and fewer herds and shepherds in this area, and the number is not sufficient to manage the area efficiently,” Bar-Or said, stressing that the government must begin subsidizing infrastructure, such as watering units, to make such grazing possible.
Increased grazing, as well as continued maintenance of tree density aligning roads and settlements, is vital to the area, agreed Hugh D. Safford, a regional ecologist for the Pacific Southwest region for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service.
The Carmel region, whose woodlands resemble those of Angeles National Forest in Southern California, has a lot of fuel for fire, but requires ignition to set it off, and this is often then propelled by uncontrollable easterly winds, Safford explained.
Such areas are not ideal places for homes, villages and cities, he said.
“But they often are [built there]– as you know the entire city of Haifa is built in one of these ecosystems,” he added.
According to Bar-On, perhaps the most important tool for disaster prevention is educating the public that makes use of the land – area inhabitants, army units conducting firing exercises, and tourists making campfires – on how to take part in protecting their forest.
“I believe very much in education and enforcement together. We have a lot to do in terms of the education of the public at large, and the army in particular, in order to prevent such fires,” he said.
Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist of the Nature and Parks Authority, echoed Bar-On’s opinion, stressing that while intense land management via cooperation among various governmental bodies was important, the involvement of the local people was equally crucial.
“If we are not going to cooperate with the local communities the same way we are cooperating among ourselves, and just come to them with papers telling them what we want them to do, then this is going to fail,” Shkedy said. “We have to talk the same way to the local people.”
But to Wajeh Kayouf, mayor of the Druse village of Isifiya, the governmental authorities are still not taking the local residents seriously and all too often look down on them.
“Even after the fire, none of these organizations has understood and internalized that people are important,” Kayouf said. “I am telling you on behalf of the residents of the Carmel, we see the park as a resource, but we ask you – please stop seeing us as a threat to the park.”
Kayouf recommended that a committee be constructed with representation from all the government bodies, as well as local representatives, to ensure the implementation of fire prevention and environmental protection while preserving the cultural values of the local populations.
To this suggestion, Shkedy responded that such a meeting needed to be the initiative of the residents, who should invite everyone concerned.
“It’s your stage,” he said.
Kayouf praised an already successful collaboration that has been taking place between his community and the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Haifa District director, Shlomo Katz, to help maintain Isifiya’s forest.
“We speak a lot with him and the community because we think that they are the most important people who can arrange the management of Mount Carmel,” Katz told The Jerusalem Post, in between conference sessions. “They are living here, and we come from outside.”
The biggest problem for the local people now is that with the existing nature reserves and creation of fire buffer zones, they have nowhere to build their homes, he continued, adding that the authorities could not create a model for the future while forgetting the community.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu stressed that the authorities had in fact been taking pains to involve the local residents in their plans, and had continually requested comments from them since the fire.
Green education and fire-prevention awareness have also begun in Druse kindergartens and schools throughout the region, according to Katz.
“There is always room to close gaps and have more cooperation,” Netanyahu told the Post. “Even the process of education must be something [in which] you develop the programs together with the community.”