Israel’s wildfires

Like many of you, I have been saddened and worried for the people of Israel because of the country’s wildfires, a couple thousand, that had been taking place from the north – in and around Haifa, down the coast and into the country’s midsection close to Jerusalem. I have followed news reports in foreign and Israeli papers and watched live reports and clips. There were sporadic reports on the TV news, but not all that much. Lots going on here in the US and around the world, so that would make sense.

For Israelis and relatives and friends of Israelis, it was very big news.

I didn’t want to write about the fires until I knew more, and I had a number of questions. There were conflicting reports, some might have been more emotional than real, and I wanted to be accurate.

Where were the fires? Why were there so many? How did they start? Was arson involved? How many people got hurt? Did any die? Could I find out more about the Palestinians helping? And how close was one of the fires to where my nephew planted a tree in honor of his, at that time, upcoming Bar Mitzvah, in a Jewish National Fund forest in Israel?

I took this picture of my nephew about to plant a tree in the JNF forest
I took this picture of my nephew (on the right) about to plant a tree in a JNF forest

It takes a few moments to get oriented thinking about the wildfires in Israel. We have fires here in California every year. Some are caused by lightning, careless campers and others, and once in a while some are purposely set by some disgruntled or unbalanced human being. Our fires are huge. The largest we have had (which includes some area in Nevada) was the Rush Fire in Lassen County in the summer of 2012 and it scorched 315,577 acres (about 1.3 million dunams), almost 500 square miles.

Israel is a very small country and even if only a fraction of what we see here in the US gets burned – in all, to this point, 32,000 acres (130,000 dunams) have been burned – it affects many. Forests in Israel are not like those here, where we have many huge trees over so much land, and a lot of it fairly empty of population centers, although tragically, sometimes small towns do get destroyed. In Israel, people live within and close to many green areas, and along with the heat, the wind can move swiftly to make someone homeless and hurt.

Haifa was hit the hardest with between 400 and 527 homes destroyed depending on the news source, and over 60,000 residents needing to escape the oncoming flames. Unofficial estimates put the damage cost at around NIS 2 billion (2 billion shekel or about $500M).

In Israel’s 2010 devastating Mount Carmel forest fire just south of Haifa, 44 people were killed. Thankfully, no one has died from the latest conflagration, though 133 people were injured, one seriously.

Israel is always among the first to send help when disaster strikes, even to the far reaches of the earth, so it was nice to see ten other countries give assistance.

The early fires seemed to have been caused by the weather or carelessness, many later fires by those looking to contribute in a sinister way. Make no mistake, those who commit arson to try and destroy people and property are terrorists and must be treated as such.

To get a better understanding of the wildfires and their effect, I contacted my friend David Schoenfeld, a licensed Israeli Tour Guide, and owner of David’s Dynamic Tours Of Israel for over 20 years, since making Aliyah. Who better to give me the proper perspective than someone who makes a living traveling the length and breadth of the country, someone quite knowledgeable of every corner of the Jewish State?

I spoke to David and his wife, Barbara, after Shabbat and from my questions, they helped me bring the fires to proper scale, and assisted in personalizing this disaster. As the two spoke, I looked at a couple maps of Israel to see the cities, towns and other population areas, as well as the country’s topography and locations of forests or greenery.

I have been to Haifa and some surrounding neighborhoods, but had not realized that there was enough greenery around, even if not the size of a forest to, aided by the wind, create so much havoc and destruction.

David’s sister lives in Zichron Yaakov 15 – 20 miles south of Haifa, and as a fire approached her home last Tuesday, she was evacuated. She was able to go back on Friday to check things out, but the house, fortunately not burned, was smoke-damaged and will not be habitable for at least a few weeks until things are cleaned up.

At the time of our conversation, it was not yet definitive that there were arsonists, although there were many instigators and inciters, even sick celebrants, on social media. Barbara did send me links showing that some suspects were indeed most probably arsonists and as of Saturday night 37 suspected arsonists and inciters were arrested. Most were Palestinians, 18 were Arab Israelis.

Only Israeli populated areas (and a Druze village near Haifa) within and without the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Agreement Line, also known as the pre-1967 borders) were affected by fires; Arab areas and neighborhoods in green areas were not. The Palestinian Authority did send eight fire trucks and 40 firefighters to help the Israelis, which was welcome and a great gesture, but there were no fires for them to fight in Palestinian communities, even those close to Israeli ones that were burning. That gave people pause.

David explained to me that the Green Line was called that because the demarcation was made in green ink during negotiations, something I knew, but it was also known with that name because after Israel’s independence, the country started planting trees at the line with then Jordan and inward, especially close to Jerusalem, something I did not know. Zoom in and out of this map to see green to the left of the line south of Jerusalem for example, not much to the right.

As of the writing of this column, there are no active wildfires in Israel and I hope there will be no more. The Israeli government and insurance companies will be involved with making determinations of arson or something other than that so as to make compensation available for destroyed or damaged property. I hope that happens soon.

Two fires west of Jerusalem were only about ten miles north of where my nephew planted a tree in a Jewish National Fund forest, near Yad Kennedy, a memorial built after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (David took us to this forest and location.)

People were hurt and property and trees were destroyed. Soon people will be able to return to their homes assuming they haven’t lost them completely. For those who have, hopefully, they will be made whole as quickly as possible.

And the trees, those beautiful trees. They will need to be replenished. So go to Israel and help rebuild nature. Go plant a tree.

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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