The fires in Israel are now dying down, and Israelis can breathe a sigh of relief that the worst of the crisis is over. As focus shifts from fire fighting to helping those who have lost their homes, it is worth examining Israel’s response to see how the country has evolved on fighting fire since 2010. That year’s Carmel forest blaze killed 44 Israelis and prompted a much needed reexamination of Israel’s approach to fires. Many nations fail in response to crises. The real test is whether they can learn from failure and improve in the future.
In 2010, Israel seemed unprepared on multiple fronts, including evacuation, equipment and rescue operations. The worst moment of that fire was the death of 44 prison guard cadets who had come to evacuate prisoners threatened by the fires. Israelis had reason to question whether Israel, which typically responds well to disasters, had the capability to face additional fires in the future.
The 2010 fires took place early in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s second term of office. Early external crises often challenge leaders. US President John F. Kennedy faced the Bay of Pigs crisis in his first year in office in 1961. Kennedy had inherited a doomed operation to liberate Cuba from Communist dictator Fidel Castro. Castro just died this week, so obviously the operation failed, embarrassing the new administration and the young president. Despite the humiliation, Kennedy learned important lessons from the crisis that helped him successfully navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Another failed US response to a crisis that taught important lessons was the Katrina flood of 2005. The US suffered multiple levels of failure in that situation, at the local, state, and federal level. On the plus side, though, Louisiana appeared to learn key lessons from Katrina and reacted much better to the 2016 flooding in Baton Rouge. In these more recent floods, Louisiana seemed to understand that it could not count on the federal government for immediate help, and engaged in actions at the local level to help save lives. The Cajun Navy, for example, a collection of individual Louisiana with boats, went out on their own into the waters to rescue neighbors in trouble.
Sometimes leaders learn key lessons from history. In the 1918 influenza epidemic, US President Woodrow Wilson did precious little as 675,000 Americans died. Wilson had even been warned that US troop transports bringing soldiers to fight in Europe in World War I were helping to spread the disease, but he refused to stop those transports. Forty-three thousand American servicemen ended up dying from influenza in that war. In the 2000s, President George W. Bush read John Barry’s book “The Great Influenza,” the history of that terrible disease, and ordered the US government to come up with plans for addressing an influenza outbreak. The Bush plans included the stockpiling of antivirals, an acceleration of vaccine capabilities, and more clarity about the roles of various US government players in case of a serious flu outbreak. Those plans came in handy in the Obama administration, which deployed them in the 2009 swine flu outbreak. In that case, with the Bush plan put into effect, fewer people died than in an average flu year.
With respect to the 2016 fires, Israel appeared to learn the lessons of 2010 and put them to good use. While these fires destroyed more land than the 2010 conflagrations, there were fortunately no deaths this time around. This time, Israeli firefighters operated under a unified command, which alleviated some of the confusion from the divided and unclear command system of 2010. Israeli firefighters also had newer equipment, and Israel had hired more firefighters to prepare for this kind of eventuality. Israel also made sure that it had 14 planes ready to go to fight fires, in contrast to 2010, when firefighters had to commandeer crop dusters to deploy for fighting fires.
On the international front, despite all we hear about Israel’s so-called isolation, many nations helped out with equipment, including Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, Canada, and the US. Even the Palestinian Authority contributed equipment and firefighting crews, a rare and welcome taste of the promise of peaceful coexistence. In sum, as Minister of Security Gilad Erdan put it, “all the lessons have been learned” from that terrible 2010 Carmel fire.
Leaders, and nations, often face challenges from unexpected external events. The real question is how one deals with them, and if one learns from past mistakes. In this case, Israel appears to have learned from its missteps of 2010, and Netanyahu deserves credit for bouncing back from an early setback in his administration to lead a more successful response this time around.
Tevi Troy is a US presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is “Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.“