A summer in flames

With arson suspected in two forest fires that have destroyed 3,600 dunams in the last ten days, authorities have labeled this summer as one of the most destructive in Israeli history.

Fire in Gamla 311 (photo credit: Osnat Eitan)
Fire in Gamla 311
(photo credit: Osnat Eitan)
Thirty thousand trees were destroyed and 3,000 dunams were scorched in the Beit Shemesh area at the end of June, in what firefighters have described as one of the worst blazes to break out since the Second Lebanon War.
Today, 10 days after the fire was put out, police and firefighters suspect that the flames were lit deliberately, and are expected to release more information on the investigation in the near future.
Investigators have already concluded that the fire bore all the hallmarks of arson.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Fire and Rescue Services Commissioner Shimon Romach provided a general description of what a typical fire that was lit deliberately would look like.
“A fire like that has more than one core. Fires never start alone, and always require a catalyst. Hot winds and dry weather can spread the flames, but not spark them. Sometimes, if we get to an area and see three cores where the fire was concentrated, we believe that this cannot be coincidental,” he explained.
A description of June’s massive blaze by Shmulik Amsalam, spokesman of the Beit Shemesh fire department, includes such telltale signs of arson.
“We have found multiple fire cores,” Amsalam said on Wednesday. “But we cannot say more about the investigation at this stage.”
He noted a major increase in incidents of arson this summer. “Arson happens every year, but we haven’t seen a year like this one. Usually we deal with two to three incidents a year. But this year, we have already seen six to seven cases,” he said.
The Police have the lead in the investigation, and receive the results of investigations carried out by firefighters, which can then be used to assemble indictments against suspects, if any are arrested.
Cmdr. (ret.) Dan Ronen, former head of the police northern district, told the Post last week that forensics officers would be playing a vital role in the Beit Shemesh investigation.
Police have their own arson investigation officers and a special lab to analyze forensic evidence, he said.
One day after the monster Beit Shemesh blaze, a second, smaller incident arson occurred in the area.
A field caught fire in the Beit Shemesh area; and fire crews and a plane were dispatched to the scene to put out the blaze. The incident hampered the investigation into the larger incident.
A few days later, police arrested a man described as being mentally unstable on suspicion of causing the second, smaller blaze.
Amsalam said he could not yet discuss suspicions that the two fires were linked.
He could, however, say with certainty that the increase in arson-related incidents placed a major financial strain on fire stations, which are already stretched to the limit due to underfunding.
“It’s not just natural areas that are damaged. Our equipment is damaged too, and our vehicles break down. The hoses are also affected. It’s not easy to replace these things,” Amsalam said.
“It costs between NIS 1 million and NIS 2 million to purchase new trucks,” he added.
Romach concurred. “If we were rich, we could replace our vehicles every four years like Magen David Adom does. But we are not in that position,” he said.
In May, during an annual civil defense drill, Romach said the Fire and Rescue Services’ lack of funds and personnel meant that the 1,400 firefighters in service stood “no chance” of responding adequately to a scenario in which hundreds of missiles rain down on a daily basis.
“The lack of funding has reached unbearable levels.
What we have now is insufficient for peacetime.
Our standards are irrelevant today, and they were barely relevant 20 years ago,” he said in May.
Talks are currently under way to secure a cash injection from the Finance Ministry that would see NIS 100 million made available to the vital first responders.
While welcomed by firefighters as a desperately needed measure, the extra cash would still be insufficient for answering the service’s vital needs.
Meanwhile, in the North, a spate of arson attacks continued to plague Jewish National Fund forests this week.
Two enormous fires, which broke out in the Biriya and Bra’am forests in the Galilee, “appear to have been deliberately started,” JNF chairman Efi Stenzler said on Sunday.
He based his comments on an investigation launched by the JNF, which operates its own fire services in areas under its jurisdiction.
More than 600 dunams were burned on Sunday in the two fires.
Stenzler said that since April, 20,000 dunams have been burned to the ground in northern forests.
“The damage caused by these fires will cost many millions of shekels to repair,” he said.