As Jews begin to pray for rain following Sukkot, and with the 2021 wildfire season hopefully behind us, it is important to reflect on what went well over the past year and what needs attention.
When I was a USDA Forest Service manager in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area, our wildfire staff would brief the Governor of Nevada ahead of every year’s wildfire season. If it had been a wet winter, we would point out how much more fuel was available to burn because of all of the new growth. If it had been a dry winter, we would point to the explosive, flammable conditions. Either way, the conclusion was identical: Another dangerous season awaits. The same is true for Israel. Now is the time to reflect on the past season and take action.
First, we need to be clear about what went well. Kudos are due to the organizations and the many firefighters who successfully extinguished this year’s blazes. And while there were injuries and even a related fatality, they were not on the scale of the Carmel Fire, thank God; Israel has clearly learned lessons since 2010.
The country now has a small fleet of firefighting planes. It has provided some basic wildland firefighting training to some of the structure firefighters, and quite a number of fire engines carry protective gear and tools for wildland firefighting. Israel also now has a unified command structure, so it is clear to all that there is one person ultimately directing firefighting efforts. All of these are significant improvements.
Nevertheless, this year’s fire season faces significant challenges that still need to be addressed. Here are some basic recommendations:
1. Thin and manage forests, and help heal what has burned
Israel’s forests need more attention. They are overgrown and fire-prone. While some blame climate, the main culprit here is forests that are adding more flammable vegetation every year—especially after a couple of wet winters. Though it has come in for much criticism regarding the move, Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (JNF-KKL) was right to plant Aleppo pines to reestablish vegetation on badly eroding slopes stripped bare by Ottoman-era logging and centuries of overgrazing.
But now it is time to thin those pine forests to create more spacing between trees and to underplant native biblical species that are more fire-resistant. While the sale of pine trees for timber may help fund some of this work, additional funding is needed to create a more sustainable forest environment. JNF-KKL should identify and prioritize forested areas to treat and more aggressively move in this direction. Their nurseries are already growing the biblical species.
Healing the damage from this year’s fires is an immediate concern. Has there been any seeding or soil stabilization following this year’s fires to protect the vulnerable burnt hillsides? Are there plans to implement before the winter rains come?
2. Establish a ‘Firewise’ program.
We need to protect people’s homes and businesses. Fifty homes were destroyed by a wildfire just two years ago in Mevo Modi’in. Nations around the world have “Firewise” programs, but Israel does not. This was the number one recommendation of former U.S. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen on her recent visit to Israel.
A Firewise program is an education and assistance program that teaches communities and homeowners to protect their property by clearing flammable vegetation, ensuring that homes are built with flame-resistant materials, and how to ensure that firefighters can access their properties. Efforts were made to establish a program, but no one organization took the lead. Someone needs to take responsibility.
3. Wildland firefighter training is needed.
Wildland firefighting is very different from structure firefighting. Not enough Israeli firefighters have basic wildland training, and few if any have training beyond that. Organizing and implementing an effective and safe initial and extended attack to protect lives, property and the forest takes more than a two-week basic wildland firefighting course. Do Israel’s wildland firefighters have experience in the use of drip torches, directing bulldozers, etc.? Why doesn’t Israel have at least one hotshot crew (elite special forces of firefighting) that can be rapidly deployed to contain fires? Does Israel do pre-season wildfire simulation drills with all of the agencies working together? As in the military, training and preparation are the keys to success.
4. After-action reviews.
Israel’s fire suppression agencies need to do after-action reviews in closed sessions after each major fire, without media and without prospects of recrimination, with all agencies present. These discussions will inform decision-makers regarding any changes that need to be made.
There are many questions to ask. Were there safety “near misses?” Was there an immediate, massive, rapid initial attack? How long was it from the time the fire was first reported until planes or people showed up and began to extinguish the fire? Is the dispatch center able to launch a pre-approved attack that has been planned in advance? Does Israel have the right equipment? Are there bulldozers on contract ready to be deployed to build fire lines around communities? Are those operators trained? How effective were aerial resources? How quickly did they arrive? If more is needed, is it more effective to lease or contract aerial firefighting planes or helicopters or to purchase them? Does the military have units that can be retrofitted and are they available for immediate response during wildfire season?
5. Address the arson issue comprehensively.
Responding to concerns regarding a possible uptick in arson must be a priority. Is there a public campaign that the Israel Fire Service or the IDF Home Front Command can undertake? “See something, say something, call someone” or “Don’t assume someone else called it in” or “Call if you see something suspicious—help us protect our Holy Land.” The public needs to be Israel’s eyes and ears.
Israel is a world leader in drone technologies. Is Israel using drone, satellite and infrared technology to pick up fire starts? Does Israel have trained wildfire arson investigators and are the points of fire origin being protected? If arson attacks are found to be nationalistic, a great message would be to sell the timber that can be removed in an environmentally responsible way, to build more Israeli homes.
There will be great pressure on the government to jump to conclusions after the season and to buy more equipment as a response. I would suggest that before the agencies start buying, they should first do a thorough analysis and do what is best for the safety of the firefighters and residents, to protect their homes and businesses and protect our precious forests—in that order.
Gary Schiff, a former U.S. Forest Service manager for the Carson Ranger District-Sierra Front/Lake Tahoe area, one of the busiest wildfire districts in the western United States, is now a Jerusalem-based natural resource consultant connecting Israel and the United States.