Fires caused by Katyushas set northern forests back 50-60 years

The Jewish National Fund in Israel (KKL-JNF) estimates that it will cost nearly NIS 20 million to restore the forests damaged in the North as a result of Hizbullah rocket attacks. According to Yishai Soker, Deputy Director of KKL-JNF's northern region, "Most of the rockets are landing in open country which, in the northern region, is mainly wooded. KKL-JNF teams in the North are going out with fire trucks and working round the clock to ensure that all these fires are put out as promptly as possible." Since the beginning of the fighting, local firemen together with KKL-JNF staff have battled almost 500 fires, resulting in the North's fire-fighting capacity being stretched very thin. With around 20 fires being fought daily, fire-fighting teams from around the country have been brought in to supplement the North's 12 ground teams, nine fire trucks, four fire-fighting airplanes and some 100 firefighters. During the day these teams are aided by aerial fire-fighting equipment capable of spraying large amounts of fire retardant on the wildfires. So far, two firefighters have been lightly injured battling these fires. "During the past two weeks we have used a greater amount of anti-fire spray from the helicopters than we used in the entire past year," according to Gershon Avni, Director of the KKL-JNF Department for Land Development. Rockets falling into forests since the beginning of the ongoing war along the Israel-Lebanon border have sparked wildfires which have destroyed more than 12,000 dunams of natural and man-made forests, encompassing nearly half a million trees. In addition to this it is estimated that 25,000 dunams of farmland and pastures have also been damaged. Regeneration of a one-dunam area of forest is estimated to cost NIS 3,000 for the first two years alone. This includes the cost of preparing the ground, planting and maintaining young saplings. The cost of supporting such saplings can grow quickly with Israel's harsh climate. "The damage that has been caused to the green spaces in the North is tremendous…it will take the forests 50 to 60 years to reach the state they were in before the fighting" said Dr. Omri Boneh, director of the KKL-JNF's northern region. The KKL-JNF, which is the official care-taker of much of the country's forests, has instituted an emergency campaign among world Jewish communities and has already collected more than NIS 5 million during this appeal. The KKL-JNF intends to purchase additional fire trucks, fire-resistant materials and defensive equipment for firefighters with this money, and to renew the burned forests through a massive planting initiative immediately after fighting in the North ends. The forests hit hardest by the rocket attacks have been the Biria forest and the forests of the Naftali mountain range above Kiryat Shmona. In Biria, a forest popular for its beautiful scenery and a frequent vacation spot, 1,500 dunams of forest have burned. More than three quarters of the forests along the slopes of the Naftali range have been burned, along with 1,000 dunams in Beit Keshet, 800 dunams in the Shlomi forest and 700 dunams in Meron. Paul Ginsberg, Director of the Forest Department for the KKL-JNF's northern region, said "it's a real personal tragedy to see 50 to 60 years of work go down the drain before your eyes." While the direct impact of the fires on the environment will be limited, there will be significant harm done to certain wildlife populations not able to easily escape a wildfire. Once the new saplings are planted, it could take 10 years until the forests return to "crown closure" where the canopies of the trees touch one another, providing the scenic vista of a more developed forest. According to Ginsberg, KKL-JNF will be much more sensitive in the future to building forests with a better understanding of the local ecology and with a view to maximizing the forests' value for society's use. "We're trying to incorporate the values and principles of sustainable forestry and development in our restoration process," he assured. KKL-JNF is waiting until the border situation dies down to begin a more organized assessment of the scope of damages. Forest areas that weren't damaged should reopen for the public to visit as soon as hostilities are over.