Israel must not only restore the forest and homes that were destroyed by last week’s fire in the Carmel Mountains, its prime minister said, it must also build a airborne firefighting capacity to put out such devastating blazes in the future.
“We have to understand what we’re facing,” Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday, Dec. 9, in a conference call to nearly 1,000 supporters around the world. “We have to basically restructure, rebuild about half the Carmel forest — about 45 percent I think is burned — and we have to do it in ways that are compatible with the other ecological concerns we have.”
But he added, “We will have to rebuild homes, we have to rebuild the forest and we have to build — not rebuild — an aerial capability so that the work we do to rejuvenate this forest is not consumed by a future fire.”
Jewish National Fund arranged Thursday’s conference call, which, according to its president, Stanley Chesley, had the “greatest number [of callers] we ever had.”
The fire, which broke out Dec. 2 and raced quickly through the forest due to dry conditions and high winds, killing 42 people, burning up more than 5 million trees and forcing 12,500 people to evacuate. One kibbutz was destroyed and a youth village heavily damaged.
Since the fire, JNF has raised more than $2 million toward the $10 million goal in its Operation Restore Carmel campaign. Several thousand dollars were raised locally, according to Adrienne Indianer, regional director of its western Pennsylvania office.
During the conference call, Netanyahu acknowledged that the country was not prepared to fight a fast-moving forest fire in the most effective way — from the air.
He said he first realized the necessity of an aerial component this August while visiting a Greek island with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, and a forest fire broke out there.
“Within 35 minutes there were three Canadian-built planes that came in with one helicopter, and they began to put out the fire,” the prime minister said. “When I came back to Israel, I understood we had to organize for this and we had to check into procuring these planes because the means we had [for fighting forest fires] were inadequate.”
He thanked JNF for everything it had done so far to support the Jewish state during its crisis. “This help is needed,” he said. “This fire may not be burning now, but we want the same dispatch we had when we were fighting the fire.’’
Marc Kelman, JNF vice president of campaign, who was on the ground in Israel for 36 hours after the fire broke out, recounted his experiences for the callers.
“These Israeli people, they are tough people,” Kelman said. We spoke to people who lost their homes, lost their businesses; these are tough people. Their attitude was, ‘I still have my life; let’s jump in here and start rebuilding.’ All they want is a little help to do it.”
But they also want answers.
According to Shimon Romach, Israeli fire commissioner, the families of the two firefighters who lost their lives, confronted the minister of the interior during shiva calls, wanting to know why their relatives were working with antiquated equipment.
“They were complaining to the minister of interior how do you allow your fire departments to use old trucks?” Romach said. “This is one of our main problems. We are using fire trucks that are even older than our firefighters.”
Antiquated or not, Romach estimated that $1 million in firefighting equipment was lost during the blaze.
JNF leaders pointed to equipment as a critical need they want to address through their campaign, as well replanting, and expansion of the Fire Scouts, a teen program for junior firefighters. One scout, Elad Riven, died while fighting the flames.
While the prime minister acknowledged the need to replant the forest in an ecologically sound way, Kelman cited another less-addressed reason to turn the forest from “black to green.”
This is personal, Kelman said, intensely personal.
“I’ve seen forest fires in Arizona and California. I’ve walked through forests that were burnt. It didn’t mean anything to me; they were just trees,” he said. “But these trees, they were our trees; they were JNF trees.”
Behind every tree “was a story,” he added.
Walking through the charred woods, “you could still make out the plaques of the owners,” he said. “I couldn’t help but wonder what their stories were, these people who donated the money. I see it as our obligation. These are our trees and we need to get them replanted.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)