Lag Ba’omer bonfires scaled back for fears of weather, disasters

Fire and Rescue Commissioner Dedy Simhi signed an order Wednesday forbidding bonfires across most of the country.

Residents of the city of Bnei Brak gather at communal bonfires in celebration of the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer on May 2, 2018. (Credit: Avraham Gold)
Municipalities around the country scaled back Lag Ba’omer festivities Wednesday in a rare move, citing fears of unseasonably dry weather and lingering doubts after a flash flood claimed the lives of 10 youths in the Arava.
In Meron, the burial place of Kabbalist figure Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, northwest of the Sea of Galilee, huge bonfires were lit as usual, though the city of Haifa, among others, forbade the lighting of bonfires during the holiday, which will last until Thursday night.
Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter to warn against bonfires.
“Tonight we celebrate Lag Ba’omer,” he said in a video he posted. “Forecasters tell us that there are high temperatures and winds, and the experts say, ‘Do not light bonfires.’ So do not light bonfires. There will be other opportunities.
But if you must, then... make a barbecue at home – even vegetarian.”
Forecasts across the country see unseasonably warm temperatures and dry weather through next week, prompting fears the bonfires could spread and fears of air pollution.
Fire and Rescue Commissioner Dedy Simhi signed an order Wednesday forbidding bonfires across most of the country.
In a corresponding notice, bonfires were forbidden in all Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund areas, including forests, parks and open spaces.
Rami Zaritzky, head of the KKL-JNF firefighting division, warned in a statement, “Each year thousands of dunams of forested land and natural groves are burned due to negligence. We call on the public to refrain from lighting bonfires in forested lands in all KKL-JNF sites.”
Meanwhile, the Fire and Rescue Authority released a warning to the public that “in the coming days, weather conditions characterized by high winds, which are accompanied by high temperatures, are expected to cause rapid spread of fire, endangering human life and property.”
The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication Maariv reported that parents took to social media to express doubt about permitting bonfires after last week’s disaster at Nahal Tzafit, in which 10 pre-army youths were killed in a flash flood.
“This is a chronicle of a predestined disaster,” one parent wrote. “Another catastrophe would have to happen here for parents to understand that the weather can be devastating,” wrote a second.
In Meron, where hundreds of thousands of Jews descend yearly upon the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai to mark the date of his death, police officers were deployed early Wednesday and will have a presence through midnight Thursday, the police spokesman said.
Police said they were using various technological means in the area, “including a hovercraft, a wide array of cameras and a police helicopter...
to receive aerial pictures of the events in the sector,” according to a statement.
Nevertheless, bonfires went on as scheduled there.
“Only two years ago the city of Haifa experienced a fire that spread rapidly and caused tremendous damage, endangering lives. We will not take a risk when it comes to the security of our residents,” Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said in a statement on the city’s website.
In the capital, special areas were designated for bonfires, and schools were asked not to light bonfires. Similarly, the cities of Ramat Gan, Netanya and Modi’in recommended against lighting bonfires but stopped short of forbidding them, instead designating areas for bonfires.
The Tel Aviv Municipality posted a list of acceptable places for bonfires but cautioned that inspectors would be deployed to maintain public order, noting that bonfires would be permitted only until midnight.
In Beersheba, where temperatures on Thursday are expected to reach a high of 98 degrees Fahrenheit, the city forbade bonfires.
“Like other authorities throughout the country, in order to ensure the safety of the residents and in order to avoid damage to property as a result of fires, the public is asked to show responsibility and not to set fire to bonfires at all,” the Beersheba Municipality said in a statement.
However, in Acre, bonfires were permitted without restriction in specific areas only, with the city posting a notice on Facebook saying there would be special inspectors across the city.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef issued a statement calling for the public to exercise extreme caution in lighting Lag Ba’omer bonfires.
“According to Jewish law, despite the importance of the day, it is obligatory to obey the safety instructions of the professional bodies and to light the fires in each and every town only according to their directions,” he wrote.
The Health Ministry, which also discouraged the lighting of bonfires, cautioned that air pollution due to smoke can harm children, the elderly, pregnant women and patients with chronic diseases.
It also advised against strenuous physical activity and warned of dehydration and sun exposure.
The Fire and Rescue Authority noted that bonfires should not be higher than 1.5 meters or wide, and should not be lit close to trees, telephone wires or electricity lines.
Last year’s celebrations were not without controversy, as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) extremists in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood burned an effigy of a haredi IDF soldier.
In 2014, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid was ceremonially put up in flames for his efforts to draft haredim into the IDF. In 2010, an outlawed right-wing political group distributed effigies of then-United States president Barak Obama.