The Carmel Fire Report

The Israeli State Comptroller, Micha Lidenstrauss, has issued his special Report on the Carmel Forest Fire of 2010 that killed 44 people. That it was a national tragedy is unquestionable, that the fire services of Israel were totally unprepared for such an emergency is accepted. However, who was really responsible for that sorry state of affairs?

According to this Report, those principally responsible were the Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. This is a very serious accusation and has resulted in major headlines throughout Israel. The Report distinguishes between operational responsibility and political responsibility. As far as the operational aspects are concerned, it is clear that the fire-fighting establishment was not “integrated” so that communications were difficult if not impossible. Further, safety precautions were not followed, so that a Commander of the Haifa district was driven into the heart of the fire following a bus full of cadets and they were cut-off and surrounded by the fire and all perished. This was a brave but doomed attempt to reach other cut-off facilities, including the local prison.

Certainly one of the issues that was revealed by the response to the fire was a lack of equipment. Israel then had no planes to drop water or retardent on the fires and lacked essential communications equipment. But, that was not the main problem, the main problem was lack of foresight and planning for such dangerous eventualities. Noone was prepared, and this fault is laid at the feet of the main political appointees responsible, namely the Ministers. It is concluded that Eli Yishai in his role of Interior Minister failed to take any actions to ensure that the fire-fighting services under his jurisdiction were capable of responding effectively to such emergencies in order to protect Israel and its citizens. Yuval Steinitz as Finance Minister was responsible for preventing the fire-fighting services from receiving sufficient funding that could have allowed it to plan for and have appropriate equipment for fighting such serious fires. PM Netanyahu also comes in for his share of criticism.

However, political appointees such as these can always state, as they have done, that such a situatioin was not foreseeable and that there is insufficient funds to support the IDF, the Homeland Security forces, and so on and so on. Since the fire, and followng Knesset investigations and recommendations, many things have been changed. Funding for the fire services has been increased, communications have been improved, Israel now has several fire-fighting planes and the fire-fighters themselves have learned valuable lessons, but at great cost . In a way, the typical flippant Israeli response to such emergencies, “yihiye b’seder” or “everything will be alright,” has been shown to be fatally flawed.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.