The fire next time

The Carmel Mountain fire reveals the flaws in Israeli society – and what can be done.

fire (photo credit: Sebastian Schneider / AP)
(photo credit: Sebastian Schneider / AP)
THE RAIN, HARD, COLD and persistent, comes a week too late. For four days in early December, fires whipped through the Carmel forest, fanned by dry easterly winds. The fires killed at least 43 people and destroyed four million trees. Over 17,000 residents were evacuated from their homes. In Moshav Nir Etzion, Kibbutz Beit Oren, the youth village of Yemin Orde, and the Druze village of Isufiya, some 74 homes and public buildings were entirely destroyed, and 173 were partially burned but uninhabitable.
Aweek later, on Saturday December 11, the heavy rains wash away the soot, but the charred smell penetrates through car windows and closed doors. The earth, unprotected now by roots or scrub, is loose and slippery. A few wisps of smoke still rise into the air, their flumes attesting to the awful heat that had engulfed the mountain.
Some 150 artists live in the colony of Ein Hod, where more than 20 homes were burned or damaged and countless valuable works of art were destroyed. The scenic village, with its winding alleys, stone houses and colorful sculpture gardens, was founded in 1953 by Dada artist Marcel Janco on the ruins of an Arab village whose residents had fled in the War of Independence (and founded a new village, Ein Hawd, only a few kilometers away – which came through the fire unscathed). The citrus trees bear fruit, but the heat caused most of it to almost literally melt on the branches.
The first thing the residents did when they returned was to take a group picture with a large sign, thanking the firefighters for saving as much as they did, and post it on websites and Facebook. Then they began cleaning up and preparing for a new exhibit, opening on this day.
“Many of us stayed here during the fire to fight for our homes. Now it’s over, and we have to return to life. We have to return to art. That is who we are and what we do,” says Nomi Hoss, director of the Ein Hod Gallery.
The gallery, one of the largest in Israel, is located in the middle of the village, which remains almost unscathed. In the small foyer, usually reserved for exhibits of functional design, the residents have hastily put together an exhibit of works rescued from the ashes.
Valentina Brusilouskaya, 65, her brownblond hair gathered in a long soft braid, sits on a bench and greets visitors. Six small ceramic statues, salvaged from the fire, are arranged in a circle. The statues are rounded, semi-abstract shapes resembling feminine-figured storage jugs, forms that embrace and hold. One is stained with soot and the flame retardant that had been sprayed from the sky, and there are ashes in the soft crevices.
“That’s all that’s left of my house,” she says. She doesn’t want to talk about the fire or about rescuing her statues and paintings. “I am thankful. I am thankful to the people of Israel who have helped us.”
Her husband, Lazar Manole, 71, a painter and sculptor, came from Odessa 20 years ago. He wears a black, jaunty and loose pin-stripe suit and dark pin-striped shirt, with a bright red tie decorated with a flamboyant sunflower. His long gray hair is gathered into a ponytail bound with a grosgrain ribbon. He points to an abstract painting of vivid, hot yellows and reds – a painting of a fire. “It’s one of the few I could save. I don’t know why I painted it. I finished it four months ago. Now, it makes me tremble.”
They are living in a guest house a few miles away, arranged by the regional council. Says Brusilouskaya, “It will be hard to start our lives over at our ages, but we will. We are lucky – we are artists, we can create. So we will recreate ourselves, too.”
TV personality Meni Peer, who has several works on display, opens the exhibit, “Celebs,” which showcases the works of famous people who also surreptitiously paint. “This is like ‘Had Gad-ya,’” he tells the crowd of hundreds, referring to the playful cumulative song sung at the Passover Seder. “The exhibit was supposed to open last week, but the fire wanted to devour it. Then came the water that wanted to wash the colors away. And then the stick will come – it will be the committees of inquiry.”
The rain taps on the roof, and the windows of the gallery open on a green vista of a part of the mountain that never burned. The gallery is warm and cozy, serving red wine and crackers. It was never touched. It’s crowded and pleasant.
“We are not pathetic. We’ll make it,” says Ziva Keinar, a painter. When the fire struck, she and her sons had been sitting shiva (the traditional mourning period) for her estranged husband, killed in a car accident two days earlier. Now she and her sons are not sure where they will continue to sit shiva.
Indeed, the entire gathering feels somewhat like a shiva. The mood is somber yet warm, with moments of distracted, happy remembering. Some of the stories about the rescue and the loss carry a familiar macabre humor. Like at a shiva, the crowds come to comfort and offer any help they can.
And like at a shiva, there’s the knowledge that the real shock will come soon. When the visitors stop coming, the support ebbs, and the anger and sadness set in.
Standing off to one side are people who are already angry, and they are asking angry questions. Who evacuated the village when some of the homeowners wanted to stay and help the firefighters? Who, they ask each other rhetorically, turned off the water so that the firefighters would have more water pressure? Why didn’t the firefighters come in on the second night, when the flames reignited?
“It really didn’t have to come to this,” says Danny angrily, refusing to give his full name or say more.
AFTER A CRISIS, WE ISRAELIS respond well. We are spontaneously generous. We are proud of our firefighters and soldiers. We pull together, recognizing that the fire was not discriminatory and that Druze, Christians, Muslims and Jews worked together to put it out. We come up with creative solutions to immediate problems, we pray for the wounded, we offer donations to those who need them.
But the charred stubs of trees echo Danny’s anger: It didn’t have to come to this.
It isn’t like we didn’t know the “big one” would be coming. Israel has only 1.6 firefighters per 10,000 residents, while the international norm is 6 per 10,000. While the number of budgeted firefighter positions rose by over 10 percent between 2006 and 2009, 263 positions remain unfilled, both because the services increased their administrative staffing levels and because of a problematic organizational structure, so that budgets are either not used or not actually transferred. There are only 442 firetrucks, and only 349 of them are less than 20 years old.
In 1995, a giant blaze broke out in the Jerusalem hills, destroying some 20,000 dunams and 31 homes and injuring dozens of people. An investigative committee found that “the state of the fire service is far from satisfactory.” The committee recommended increasing and upgrading personnel and equipment; the recommendations were never implemented. In 1998, another government committee recommended increasing the number of firefighters and updating the equipment; it was ignored. In 2000, the chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, David Azoulay, announced that the situation of the firefighting services “bordered on scandalous.” In 2007, the state comptroller highlighted the fire services’ problems in a report on home front preparedness in the Second Lebanon War, citing shortages of human resources, equipment, fire stations and training. The Israel Fire and Rescue Commission has repeatedly complained to the Interior Ministry, but nothing has been done.
In the report he released on December 8, just days after the fires were out, the state comptroller wrote that not only have the fire services not improved since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, they have gotten worse.
According to all media reports, the fire began as a localized blaze, caused by a teen smoking a water pipe. Even though it spread quickly, a couple of firefighting planes could have squelched it. But we don’t have any such planes. We, members of the OECD with one of the mightiest military forces in the world, are unprepared for human disasters.
The excuses are legion, and Israeli leaders are very busy now accusing each other. But we know the reasons.
For several decades, our economy has embraced neo-liberal privatization, cutting back on all social services, even essential ones, and outsourcing them in the name of financial growth and economic efficiency. But while the economy grew richer, people and services became poorer. Even responsibility for aerial firefighting was privatized – and clearly failed. And the Treasury consistently refused to approve additional funding for the fire services without organizational reforms, including a waiver of the firefighters’ right to maintain their unions.
We have developed a culture based on amateurism and improvisation. Maybe that was once rakishly cute when we were young. We don’t plan ahead, we don’t anticipate the obvious, we don’t prepare for the impending. That’s not cute – it’s criminally negligent.
Our political system encourages leaders who want to be in government but have little interest in governing. And since the system is so unstable, they begin to campaign the moment they are elected, leaving little time or inclination to devote to long-term planning.
We seem to care about the country but not about the people who live in it. The Second Lebanon War, deemed a success by the military, left tens of thousands shoved for weeks into unprepared shelters, abandoned by a pathetic civil defense system that collapsed in the first days of the war.
Our priorities are skewed. Our defense officials seem to not understand that the home front is the main front. Our economic officials seem not to realize that economies are meant to serve people, not numbers. Our religious leaders are too busy with sectoral politics to provide insight or inspiration for the rest of us.
History, ancient and recent, has taught us that when a government neglects the national, social and physical needs of its citizens, it begins to crumble. That’s what happened in Rome and Constantinople. And when it happened in New Orleans during Katrina, Americans knew their country was in decline.
There are lots more disasters waiting to happen – the low water line in the Sea of Galilee, caused by stalled desalination facilities and political infighting; social gaps fed by shortterm, discriminatory economic policies; the poor levels of our schools; the toxic chemicals in Haifa Bay. Or the next fire, caused by the next drought or the next irresponsible kid or the next barrage of missiles.
The Carmel fires burned during Hanukka, a holiday that tells us about the limited powers of leaders and the miracles of God, “in those days at this time.” In these days, at this time, we already know that we cannot count on leaders or miracles.
We know what to do. And we also know that we have the creativity, energy, resilience and support of the Jewish world to make better lives for ourselves and our country.