A year after the Carmel fire, the anger still burns

As residents of the scenic area of northern Israel attempt to rebuild their lives, some feel neglected and betrayed

By Nathan Jeffay, December 2, 2011
Meir Tsory at the spot where his house stood

Meir Tsory at the spot where his house stood

There were flames everywhere, clouds of ash, and a smell that left you gasping for air. There was fear, as people ran from their homes, and tears, as 44 people died.

Now, driving along the winding roads through Israel's Carmel Mountains, it is difficult to recapture the utter horror of the scene here last December. A year ago today, the biggest forest fire that the country has ever seen began sweeping the region, wreaking devastation.

The tragedy gripped the nation. For the four days of the fire Israelis spoke of nothing else. Countries across the world put aside any diplomatic bones they had to pick with the Jewish state and sent help. Even Turkey, which is increasingly antagonistic to Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, with which peace talks had broken down, contributed aid.

A year on, the world has all but forgotten about the fire, but residents of the area, in the north of the country, cannot. "Before the fire it was all green, now it's all black," says 17-year-old Alex Kulik sadly, pointing to the charred hillside by his home. In the end the fire destroyed an estimated 6,200 acres of land and claimed five million trees.

Kulik lives in the Yemin Orde youth village for at-risk young people, where the fire destroyed 22 buildings and gutted the once-buzzing library - and left more than just these physical scars.

"The children here have all been through one upheaval in their lives in leaving their homes, and having a fire cause destruction at their new home has left a real mark," says Chaim Peri, Yemin Orde's emeritus director.

"Even though only some buildings were destroyed we had a feeling that everything was gone - we were in shock," says 18-year-old resident, Shlomi Yoni. The fire is constantly on their minds, he adds.

The scene a year ago in the Carmel Mountains when a forest fire raged out of control for four days, killing 44 people

The scene a year ago in the Carmel Mountains when a forest fire raged out of control for four days, killing 44 people

Walking around Yemin Orde, you come to an empty lot with an exquisite view of the sea and mountains. The remains of a melted streetlamp stand testimony to why no house occupies the spot. Meir Tsory, a 31-year-old counsellor, lived there with his wife and children before the fire. The family now lives in a mobile home

"In summer it's very hot and in winter very cold," he says, but quickly adds that he is not one to grumble and tries to see the positive side of the situation. "It's even better now - people feel much more togetherness and more connection to the village."

This refusal to complain is common among the staff of Yemin Orde - because they are acutely aware that many in their region are worse off then them.

As the village is an educational establishment funded heavily by the government, the Education Ministry is contributing toward rebuilding. It was also well insured and has found its donors generous in contributing to the shortfall. There is similar assistance at the nearby kibbutz, Beit Oren, where construction will soon begin on homes to replace the 36 that were destroyed - funded 40 per cent by government, 40 per cent by insurance and 20 per cent by the kibbutz. "This was the best solution," says community manager Ariella Chen.

But a few hundred yards away, at the artists' village of Ein Hod, the situation could not be more different. As a village of private individuals - albeit highly talented ones whose community is traditionally a major pull for Israel's tourism industry - Ein Hod residents say they have found themselves largely on their own. They do not have any plan in place for rebuilding with state assistance. Of the 17 families from Ein Hod whose homes were badly damaged or destroyed, only two have been able to start, or plan to start, reconstruction - most of the others are living indefinitely in temporary accommodation. Some tenants have had to leave the village altogether.

His rental property destroyed, video artist Niv Horovitz moved to the nearby town of Atlit. In terms of state financial assistance, he has received just 2,500 shekels (£425) each for him, his wife and daughter, and dismisses the government's latest offer of up to 35,000 shekels (£6,000) to compensate the family for the loss of their possessions as "ridiculous".

He seethes: "I feel that I've been deserted by the government as a citizen of Israel - twice. The first time was when I didn't feel the government was well organised to protect us during the fire. The second is that it neglected us when the media and cameras went away."

The Ein Hod artists are not only angry at the government but also the media, which, they say, prematurely wrote off the village. "The channels were getting good ratings when they were saying we were burnt out," says painter and sculptor Dan Ben-Arye. "We had a terrible summer, no tourism at all. We called the tour operators and asked them why they aren't sending tourists. They said they heard that Ein Hod was burnt out and erased us from their lists."

Ben-Arye's sales are down to 20 per cent of their normal level, and he says this is typical across the village. "I just sold my life insurance to keep on living, to pay for my rent and food."

While it is hard to find a happy side of the human experiences of the fire's aftermath, one part of the Carmel Fire story cannot help but make you smile. Out in the mountains covered with charred remains of trees, nature is showing off its amazing ability to revive itself. There are little pine seedlings poking up everywhere, a testament to the species' amazing instinct for self-perpetuation. The fire caused blazing pine-cones to fly all over the forest, implanting themselves in to the charred ground and thus ensuring new trees would grow.

In fact, the pine has been so successful that there is a downside. The devastated forest will soon have too many, not too few trees. If all the seedlings that are coming up are left to their own devices, they will be too densely packed and present a new fire risk in the future.

In a valley in the centre of the forest Ben Rosenberg, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's ecologist for the Carmel region, surveys the thousands of pine seedlings. "Many of these will need to go," he says, pulling up a couple with his fingers. The ground is still too delicate to start the required uprooting operation, but when it settles "it will take years, and a lot of work", to get the forest back to what it was.

Last updated: 11:41am, December 2 2011