The long, patient road to recovery

Tu Bishvat takes on a different tenor in the North this year as efforts are made to repair the damage wreaked by last month’s fire.

Deer surveys damage from Carmel fire 521 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Deer surveys damage from Carmel fire 521
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
This year’s Tu Bishvat will be different than in years past, with a special focus on rehabilitation and conservation, coming a little over a month after the Carmel wildfire left a swath of charred destruction across western Galilee.
The fire that broke out on December 4 eventually burned an estimated 30,000 dunams of forests, representing around one-third of the 115,000 dunams of the Carmel Forest Reserve, which is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and contains land run by the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet L’Israel (JNF/KKL).
While in the past, Jewish Arbor Day was marked by large-scale tree planting across Israel’s parks and nature areas, this time around, the JNF and INPA will focus largely on the long, arduous task of repairing the damage caused by the Carmel wildfire, a process that is expected to take years.
While in most years, the JNF marks Tu Bishvat by large-scale planting efforts across the country, this year the organization will focus mainly on enlisting volunteer groups in the clean-up of the Carmel forest. Such efforts will include thousands of soldiers and schoolchildren among others who will take to the Carmel reserve to help clear the ground of brush and thicket. In addition, there will be a number of ceremonial plantings that will take place in parks and nature reserves outside the Carmel area.
Many experts say that after a forest fire it is best to give the trees time to begin regenerating on their own, instead of launching a rapid replanting process. Large numbers of saplings and the brush that survived the fire can often be like kindling for future fires.
Dr. Orna Reisman-Berman of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research’s Wyler Department of Dryland Agriculture at Ben-Gurion University in Sde Boker, says that natural regeneration “can be one of the ‘restoration’ means and active restoration should be considered after monitoring of the natural process of regeneration first.”
She continues, “When considering restoration, one has to first allow the natural regeneration to occur. This is where monitoring of regeneration is of first priority. Active restoration might be considered in sites of heavy load of visitors, such as, forest parking lots, recreation sites or visitor centers, or else in places of high visibility (after it is clear that there is not enough natural regeneration) or restoration of unique and special species that disappeared in some sites because of the fire. Monitoring would assist the decision if intervention is needed and what kind and the intensity of the intervention; for example, intervention and management might be needed to assist or facilitate the regeneration of broad-leaved native species like oaks, in sites where pine thicket developed following the fire.
She says that research carried out following wildfires in the past decades (many of which were supported by the JNF and the Nature and parks Authorities) presents a foundation to predict the regeneration process, but that regardless, monitoring of current and future regeneration processes must be carried out because natural extreme events like consequetive droughts can alter the patterns of regeneration processes that were observed in the past.
Reisman-Berman adds, “The natural regeneration that would occur following the fire is a very important means of restoration and is one of the means [of restoration], along with monitoring and educated as well as site-specific intervention in the process where needed. The first pines to regenerate might form a thicket of pines and might sometimes inhibit the regeneration of native broadleaved woody species. The JNF has already practiced thinning of pines that regenerated following fires in the past, which is a suitable practice to manage the natural regeneration following wildfires.”
The JNF’s approach this year is to focus on a long-term strategy, which would include taking seeds from oak trees and placing them in incubators to prepare for planting at a later stage. A JNF spokesman who wished not to be named says that the forests have to renew themselves and that the organization is in no rush to carpet the scorched hillsides with freshly planted saplings.
ONE OF the issues involved in the clean-up process has to do with clearing the ground of the multitudes of pine buds scattered across the forest floors by the flames. The cones of Aleppo pines, which were extremely common across the Carmel, especially in the area of the heavily fire-damaged Kibbutz Beit Oren, open only when in contact with heat. The fire that tore through the Carmel turned multitudes of pine trees into pillars of flame, the cones exploding and scattering their seeds far and wide in all directions across the newly cleared soil. The winter rains that followed left the hillsides nourished, and newly sprouted pines popping up across the area have complicated efforts to replace the pine trees with new species that are less dangerous in a wildfire.
The fires last month exposed the volatility of conifers during a wildfire and, on some level, the folly inherent in the widespread planting of such species across Israel. The lingering images of pine trees combusting into columns of flame several stories high have raised calls for the replanting, when it does come, to focus on sturdier, hardwood species like oaks, which are less volatile and explosive in a fire.
Regardless of which trees cover the Carmel in the future, Dr. Jose Gruenzweig, senior lecturer at The Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post shortly after the Carmel fire broke out that the best way to renew the area is to let it rejuvenate largely on its own.
“Since this is not the first forest fire in Israel, nor even the first time the Carmel has burned, there’s no need to rush to action here,” he said.
“We know the dynamics of these things. We know quite a lot about how the system behaves. I don’t think we need a lot of actions to restore or plant many more trees. The right thing to do is not to rush, to set up a panel of experts. The priority is to plan and figure out what should be done. We should establish a center for education in that area to explain to the people what happened and to follow the developments of the natural recovery,” he argued at the time.
Gruenzweig also argued that more prudent management of the forested areas could help prevent fires from raging out of control, saying that Israel should establish peripheral areas next to main roads that will keep flames from jumping from one site to another.
For the INPA, efforts since the fire have focused on repairing the infrastructure of the Carmel Nature reserve through the deployment of large numbers of INPA workers and volunteers. The INPA has never been in charge of planting trees. Rather, their job is to safeguard Israel’s natural wonders, a task that has been especially difficult over the past month since the Carmel wildfire was extinguished and the long process of reopening the nature reserve began.
This year’s Tu Bishvat should have extra meaning in light of the long rebirth that has begun in the Carmel. After such an ecological tragedy, the INPA has focused on returning the public to the scorched areas, largely to give them a sense of the damage caused by the blaze.
During the December 25 weekend, around 50,000 people visited the Carmel Mountain nature reserve, on the first weekend the reserve opened its doors following the wildfire.
The visitors hit the reserve’s newly opened trails, following a massive clean-up effort that enlisted the help of dozens of parks authority workers and more than 1,000 soldiers from the IDF Nahal Brigade.
The relatively quick reopening is largely due to the efforts of volunteers and INPA workers from across the country. According to INPA spokesman Omri Gal, the authority “has already opened all the trails that were closed to the public during or after the fire. What’s left now is work for the sake of the security of visitors and to carry out repairs on the parking lots, benches and the like that were damaged in the fire.”
Gal says the security issues have mainly dealt with identifying trees that were damaged in the fire but are still standing and are in danger of falling and potentially injuring visitors.
“What’s most important is that the trails are clean and safe, and we are focusing on protecting people who are touring the parks,” says Gal, adding, “We think it’s very important that people come and see the damage that was caused to the reserve because we believe it will help prevent fires in the future. We believe that anyone who stands in the middle of the damaged areas will better understand what happened, and it will help prevent such disasters in the future.”
He adds that the rehabilitation could take anywhere from two to 20 years and that, more than donations or new plantings, the most important factor is time. Only the passage of time can return the Carmel to its former glory.