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Black Ash Over Scorched Earth

Binyamin Rose and Avi Friedman

As the fires are still smoldering in what has been called Israel’s worst natural disaster ever, adjusters are beginning to trek up north to assess the damage that is estimated in the billions of shekels. While international rescue and relief efforts from a variety of sources have helped contain the catastrophic blaze, Israelis are asking whether their helplessness in the face of such an environmental calamity portends a vulnerability greater than the threats of bombs and rockets.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Moshe Mir of Kibbutz HaChotrim sounded composed and measured on Sunday morning, after spending a restful Shabbos with his wife and children at his parents’ in Holon, sixty miles safely removed from the raging Carmel fires in the foothills of Haifa. But what he saw on Thursday from his home in those foothills was a terrifying picture.

“It looked like the end of the world. Mount Carmel looked like a volcano, raining fire and ash down the slopes,” said Mir.

The kibbutz, home to about 500 people, was one of several whose residents were ordered to evacuate in the face of a massive forest fire. The blaze was apparently started by two Druze youths who have been arrested and are under interrogation at press time for allegedly failing to extinguish a fire they set when smoking a narghile in the nearby Druze village of Ifsiyah.

The Mir family was among the estimated 15,000 Israelis ordered to evacuate their homes in advance of the fire that broke out on the first day of Chanukah and was poised to threaten Haifa, Israel’s third-most populous city. Flames and billowing smoke all along the Carmel ridge were visible in Zichron Yaakov, more than twenty miles to the south.

“One of our daughters started to get hysterical and we had to calm her,” said Mir. They found that their escape route was already blocked by firefighting and emergency personnel. “Even during wartime here, I have never seen this kind of evacuation effort,” said Mir.

That type of war effort — and more — will be sorely needed in the weeks ahead. Israel is about to embark on a major assessment of preparedness for future natural disasters, as well as disasters that could stem from acts of war or sabotage. Many analysts are always rightly worried about wars, but for more than a few fleeting moments, many Israelis began to realize that an enemy with a match and some kindling could do as much harm as Hizbullah rockets.

At press time, the death toll from what has been called Israel’s worst natural disaster ever stood at forty-three, forty of whom were prison guards in training sent to evacuate inmates from the nearby Damon Prison once the fire broke out. Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (the Jewish National Fund) reported that some 50,000 dunams (12,500 acres) of the Carmel Forest, where Eliyahu HaNavi’s cave is located, were destroyed, along with five million trees. Insurance adjusters were beginning their trek up north as the week began, but damage to private and government property is likely to reach billions of shekels.

Many residents were very upset at what they viewed as a sluggish response by fire and rescue officials.

“We know how to fight wars but we don’t know how to battle an environmental catastrophe,” said Mimi Amar of Atlit, a beachfront community on the Mediterranean shore south of Haifa that has been experiencing a development boom. “It’s a catastrophe. I am looking outside my house now toward the sea, and all I can see is a thick, black cloud. There is zero visibility.”

Atlit residents were not among the evacuees, but doctors did warn residents to remain indoors to avoid lung complications from the ash and the chemicals used to fight the fire.

Laura Marom, also from Atlit, was somewhat more fortunate. She was already in Tzfas for Chanukah.

“All of my children are chozrim b’tshuvah,” she said, “and I am here with one of them. But I used to serve in the Sherut Leumi (national service) and I know they are asking for help, so if I need to, I am ready to go back and help.”

Right before Shabbos Chanukah began, two Druze youths from Isfiyah were arrested. Their arrest occurred shortly after a pirate radio station in the Tzfas area aired an interview with a top official from Isfiyah, who said that villagers knew exactly who started the fire and that they were going to kill them.

Shabbos Chanukah is traditionally one of the heaviest tourist weekends in Tzfas, perhaps only second to Lag B’Omer. Before the arrests were made, rumors that Arab villagers may have started the fires led police to fan out across the Galilee. Roadblocks were set up at the entrance of Tzfas and every bus and passenger car was stopped for inspection at the Egged bus station on the outskirts of town. It was only about thirty minutes before candlelighting that police relented and lifted the roadblocks, allowing everyone to get situated before Shabbos.


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