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Israel needs a ‘Firewise’-style program

While there have been significant and commendable strides made by the Israel Fire Service since the disastrous 2010 Carmel Fire, communities across the country are at greater risk than ever.

An Israeli firefighter works to extinguish a blaze caused by an incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel on June 27, 2019. Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services.
An Israeli firefighter works to extinguish a blaze caused by an incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel on June 27, 2019. Credit: Israel Fire and Rescue Services.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

Much has been learned since the Carmel Fire of early December 2010, and Israel’s firefighting community has made major strides in implementing those lessons. Nevertheless, communities across the country are at greater risk than ever, due to the increasing frequency of arson attacks. As such, Israel needs to focus on better protecting homes and communities.

Nine years ago, the Carmel Fire killed 44 people. It also consumed some 12,000 acres, destroyed 74 buildings and turned an entire mountain into a burned moonscape. Much has been learned over the past nine years, and according to firefighters on the ground with the Israel Fire Service, many improvements have been made.

There are now protocols in place so that firefighters across the country can use the same radio frequencies, for instance. There is now a clear chain of command. A significant amount of additional wildland firefighting equipment has been purchased. Structure firefighters have received basic wildland firefighter training; most firefighters in Israel need to know how to fight both types, as the tactics are very different.

Many engines now carry wildland firefighting tools and equipment as well as specialized firefighter personal protective equipment. In addition, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (KKL) has more than two dozen firefighting engines available to suppress wildfires. Key to a rapid response, the Israel Fire Service also now has 14 firefighting aircraft available, based in three strategic locations throughout the nation.

While many in the firefighting community would no doubt advocate for more training and equipment, most would likely also agree that the steps taken thus far have been foundationally important. However, while Israel’s wildfire suppression capacity and coordination have increased, so has the risk of arson. Many fires in the south are a result of incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza, and arson terrorism is also increasing elsewhere.

Wildfires are also increasing in severity as a result of more homes being built close to woodlands, and also because of periodic drought.

It is important to understand that unlike in the western United States, where some wildfires are the result of natural causes, i.e., lightning, all wildfires in Israel are caused by people, whether intentionally or otherwise. Arson terrorism is easy terrorism, and the results can be devastating, as was the case this summer in Mevo Modi’im, where more than 50 families saw their homes and everything in them burned to the ground. Thank God, no one was killed. In 2016, some 500 homes were destroyed in the Haifa area, and over the past couple of decades, hundreds more homes have been lost to wildfires.

The first response to this challenge needs to be more effective prevention; e.g., finding ways to stop arsonists before they can ignite fires. The second response is to improve the speed and size of the suppression response. Israel has made important strides here, as noted. The challenge is that even with the best and most coordinated suppression response, Israeli homes, especially those close to forest areas, will be at an increased risk from wildfire. Unfortunately, it just isn’t possible to suppress all wildfires before they impact communities.

Therefore, the goal for protecting homes needs to be ensuring that they can remain intact should a wildfire burn through a community.

One proven model for protecting homes and communities is the U.S. “Firewise” program. In this model, homeowners receive advice on what kind of trees to plant and how close to their homes, roof construction, community access for fire vehicles, vegetative buffers between communities and the forest, and more.

When U.S. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen visited Israel this past year, she mentioned how impressed she was with the work of KKL, but also, particularly after visiting Mevo Modi’im and the Carmel area, pointed out the need for a Firewise-type education program for Israel.

Here is a personal story that clearly illustrates the value of this program.

In 2004, I was the manager of the National Forest area in the Carson City-Lake Tahoe area. A wildfire from an abandoned campfire quickly spread to thousands of acres as our initial attack was unable to contain it. It ended up destroying eight homes in the neighborhood where our family lived. The adjoining neighborhood was unaffected because of the buffer where Forest Service staff had cleared vegetation between homes and the forest, from where firefighters could safely fight the fire. Also helpful was the work many homeowners did in making their homes more “fire-safe.”

The challenge for Israel is finding the appropriate agency to take the lead on this type of program. Is it the IDF Home Front Command’s responsibility since many fires are set by terrorists? Is the Israeli Fire Service the responsible party since it has primary responsibility for fighting wildfires and structure fires? Is it KKL since much of the adjoining forest land is its management jurisdiction? Are individual communities the ones that need to take action?

To date, there have been some discussions between KKL and officials in Haifa on the need to develop a program, but other than that there have been no significant efforts. (It is important to note that such programs exist in many countries and that there are international organizations poised to help at little or no cost.)

Israel’s wildfire suppression community has made significant strides in increasing its capabilities in attacking and suppressing wildfires, and the agencies involved deserve to be commended. Now, however, in addition to finding ways to reduce arson terror, Israel needs to work with communities and homeowners to minimize the risk of tragedies such as those that befell Mevo Modi’in this summer and Haifa just a few years ago.

Hopefully, Israel’s firefighting community will build on the success they have achieved in wildfire suppression and make protecting homes a priority.

Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based natural resource consultant connecting Israel and the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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