Is Israel prepared for another catastrophic forest fire?

An aviation squad commander with a pivotal role in getting the Carmel Disaster under control rises from the ashes with a new book.

 OREN LESHEM: ‘Suddenly it hit me, especially when I saw the burning Carmel.’ (photo credit: Courtesy Oren Leshem)
OREN LESHEM: ‘Suddenly it hit me, especially when I saw the burning Carmel.’
(photo credit: Courtesy Oren Leshem)

At the time of the Mount Carmel forest fire – December 2-6, 2010, one of the worst national disasters in the State of Israel’s history – Air Force officer Oren Leshem was deputy commander of an aviation squadron at the Ramat David base, the northern base that received most of the air forces arriving from abroad to help put out the massive fire. “This whole experience was very powerful,” he recalls.

“At that time, I was already a seasoned and experienced officer, after the Second Lebanon War and many operations, but what happened in the fire led me to write in a notebook significant things that happened there. 

“Beyond all the investigations we did within the Air Force after the incident, a week after everything calmed down, I felt the need to sit at home and process everything I experienced – from the story of how we took the first pilot out for a sortie, to the moment I saw the prime minister talking to the commander of the Air Force, etc.”

Those notes became the lecture that Leshem, who was released from the army in 2018, gave in recent years about the Carmel Disaster, first within the Air Force and later before administrative and organizational bodies.

Now they have also turned into a new book he wrote about the disaster, Smoke of Uncertainty, and he is currently raising funds for its publication through Headstart.

 ‘THERE WAS a feeling that the country was going to burn.’ (credit: REUTERS) ‘THERE WAS a feeling that the country was going to burn.’ (credit: REUTERS)

“As soon as I started lecturing, they said, ‘This is a crazy story. Why don’t you write a book about it?’” he says. “That’s when I realized it was interesting. A year ago, I sat down to write, and it turned out to be the first book ever written about the Carmel Disaster.”

How was the writing process?

“The writing was natural. During the writing process, still in the draft stage, I realized that I was mentioning real names and people and I said: ‘I need to talk to them. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.’ I talked to almost all the people mentioned in the book. 

“I sat down with Brig.-Gen. Ronen Simchai, my base commander, who is a central character in the story, and suddenly I saw how he and each of the characters has a different narrative built on this story; each of them remembers things in a certain way. 

“In a conversation with my squadron commander, who is the first commander from the Air Force who took a firefighting force and went out to help, he told me about everything that led him to this important resourcefulness. At the end of the conversation, we were amazed at how we worked together, and closely, for so many years and we never talked about it.”

‘An excellent idea’

The Carmel Disaster claimed 44 lives. The fire burned 25,000 dunams (2,500 hectares) and millions of trees. Additionally, 17,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and 250 buildings were burnt.

One of the events mentioned in detail in the book is the bus disaster that occurred on December 2, 2010. at 3:17 p.m. A bus carrying cadets who had been sent to reinforce the evacuation of Damon Prison inmates got caught in a firestorm. The driver and 37 of the 40 passengers of the bus, most of them cadets from the Prison Service’s officers’ course, perished. Three firefighters and three police officers, who tried to save the passengers of the burning bus, also perished in the disaster.

“I experienced the event from the control post,” Leshem recalls. “The television was on and, in a sense, served as a source of intelligence for us. We saw something unusual happening, and then I heard that a Yasir helicopter had landed at our place to refuel. I was not informed of this in advance, and then it became clear to me that they had arrived from a mass casualty event. The helicopters arrived covered in blood, and the guys who got off the rescue helicopter were shocked by the incident.

“Then all the things started to connect. In the book, I describe the bus ride, which passed the checkpoint at 3:17 p.m. Twenty minutes later there was a phone call to the police operator from someone who reported and begged for her life because everyone was burning. 

“Then there is the report of the late Ahuva Tomer about what was happening there. This event remains in the mind as an integral part of this disaster, which can be likened to a war. The war began, and it had already claimed 44 lives. There was a feeling that the country was going to burn.”

When did you start to get control of the fire?

“The combination of extreme weather and winds was deadly. In the first two days, the fire only grew, and we were unable to control it. Only on the third day did we reach a situation where the fire did not spread. It took five days to extinguish it.”

At what point did you feel that this was a national disaster?

“It hit me for the first time when I heard about the bus disaster. I was thinking in terms of war. I was sitting inside a control post, and it gave me a wide angle view. My ability to influence the event was probably relatively large, considering the fact that I brought in and sent out dozens of planes and the fact that I sent people there and supported the ground forces. 

“The management from there was significant, but this was back-end management that allowed for a very broad perspective. When I left for home for the first time from the outpost on Saturday morning, the square near the outpost – which was empty when I arrived on Thursday – was suddenly full of Greek and French planes. 

“Suddenly it hit me, especially when I saw the burning Carmel. This is the first time that it dawned on me that there is something extreme and different here that cannot be passed over on the agenda. It’s a national event that touched and touches everyone, and I still hear this from people to this day.”

How long did it take you to realize what was going on from the moment the fire started to strengthen?

“On that Thursday, I was actually on a day off with the kids. I heard on the radio about the fire, and I saw on the entrance road from the Ramat David junction a sight that resembled a nuclear mushroom on the Carmel. 

“When the squadron commander phoned and told me he was going to an incident with fire brigades, I had a gut feeling that something was wrong and that I needed to be there. I put on a flight suit and arrived at the post. While doing this, I started to initiate an organizational process and informed those who needed to come to the discussion called ‘opening of combat.’

“Did I know what we were doing? I didn’t know. I told them that planes would probably arrive from abroad, but beyond that I didn’t know. The uncertainty was great. The organizational culture and mental preparedness we had in the Air Force helped us deal with this situation. There, I was confronted with situations that I balanced in the book because I didn’t want to offend anyone whom I mentioned.”

One of the situations that Lesham presents in the book is the visit to the outpost of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He came and demanded answers from the operational forces and all the emergency services. I remember he reprimanded the commander of the Air Force, Col. Ido Nehushtan, who was the highest official in the force, and angrily asked why weren’t all the planes in the air helping put out the fire, why didn’t all the planes from abroad that were meant to help arrive, etc. 

“I don’t judge him because his reprimands were from the professional position of the person in charge of the event. It was a crisis situation, where the senior personality comes and wants results. You can’t explain to him that you don’t really know how to conduct yourself in such a situation because it’s not interesting in times of need.”

As part of his position, he was responsible for receiving the planes from abroad that were harnessed to extinguish the fire, such as those from Azerbaijan, Italy, the US, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Egypt, Spain, France, Canada, Cyprus, Croatia, Romania, Russia and Switzerland.

“On Friday at 5 a.m., when I already knew what the four Greek planes that were expected to arrive looked like, I received a call from the commander of the Air Force on duty, Brig.-Gen. Hagi Topolansky, who told me: ‘I want you to make a video call with the commander of the control unit and the control representatives to understand how to fly above the fire,’” he recalls.

“Until that point, I didn’t touch this thing because I was busy with how I was going to receive them. Then it hit me all of a sudden that we have no idea how they will fly over the Carmel. I didn’t have the time or ability to do it because I was busy getting organized, and I called Sagi, my previous squadron commander and put him in charge of that video conference. 

“He came out thoughtful after the conference and said: ‘We need to build aids, but we need to do them in English.’ He built all the aids, and at one point I told him: ‘I already know what the plane looks like. Maybe we’ll bring an Israeli pilot who will fly with them and know how to talk to the control. It will make learning the area easier.’ 

“I didn’t understand then the meaning of what I was saying, and that was a defining moment. Sagi thought it was an excellent idea, and I called up D. to carry out the task. When the Greeks arrived, then Sagi, D. and I met with a Greek pilot and I presented the plan to him. He was enthusiastic that an Israeli fighter pilot would join the Greek guys who were going to fly. Then a car arrived with the Air Force commander and the base commander in it.

“The air force commander was on the phone, but the base commander wondered what D. was doing there. I explained to him, and he started raising his voice and scolding me. He said that he would not risk an Israeli pilot on a mission with Greek pilots, whom he does not know nor does he know how they behave in such situations. 

“Then the commander of the Air Force, Nehushtan, ended the phone call, asked what the shouting was about and said: ‘An excellent idea.’ D. went on this foray. The fact that no plane was damaged and there was no air accident is a miracle because the sky was dense, and the planes were flying one over the other’s head,” he adds.

A feeling of duty

The new book consists of two parts. The first part gives an intimate glimpse from the point of view of Leshem into the management of the incident in the Carmel fire from the beginning, through the planning and organization of planes, squadrons and ground forces to the control of senior managers from the military and political levels. 

The second part brings relevant managerial insights following the disaster, and stories and personal experiences of key figures.

To what extent does the disaster accompany you on a daily basis?

“There is a kind of mission here for me to tell this story because there is something here that must not disappear from our national memory. There are many victims of trauma from this event, people who have not been able to function since the fire, so I feel that there is something here far beyond coming and telling a personal experience. 

“It’s a powerful story that covers all types of crises, and it has insights that relate to everyone. Everyone can relate to this story. I feel I had to write it.”

Are we better prepared today for such a crisis?

“If I look at the broad perspective of a country, it shook us on an extreme level. This forced the country to prepare for this kind of disaster. Today we are not in the same situation as we were. If, God forbid, such a disaster happens again, the conduct will be better than in 2010, but to tell you that we will know how to conduct ourselves perfectly? Probably not. 

“It depends on the people who will be there, the magnitude of the disaster and other parameters. This is something that needs to be addressed. 

“After all, we recently also saw in the Meron disaster, despite a thousand differences, that the issue of who takes responsibility returned again, and the symptoms of the ills of Israeli society met us there as well.” 

Translated by Tzvi Joffre.