Negligence caused Israel Carmel forest fire

By Anshel Pfeffer, December 9, 2010
Police mourn a lost comrade

Police mourn a lost comrade

While investigators have yet to pinpoint the definitive cause, one thing seems clear: the worst forest fire in Israel's history comes down to a moment of negligence.

The blaze raged for four days, consuming some 12,000 acres on the Carmel Mountain range, claiming 42 lives, severely damaging 250 homes, displacing 15,000 people and threatening Israel's third largest city.

It was finally put out by an unprecedented coalition of the woefully underfunded Israeli firefighters and planes, engines and firemen from 24 countries including Britain, the US, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.

The fire began late on Thursday morning on the outskirts of the Druze village of Usafiyya, but investigators are still unclear about whether the cause was a coal from a water pipe thrown carelessly by a teenager into the wood, or a fire started by two brothers either near their home or at a rubbish dump. Several minors have been arrested and investigations are ongoing.

Most of the 42 victims were killed when a bus carrying prison service cadets made a wrong turn and was trapped by the fire

Most of the 42 victims were killed when a bus carrying prison service cadets made a wrong turn and was trapped by the fire

"Whatever the initial cause," said Eyal Kasspi, commander of the Herzliya Fire Brigade, one of dozens of forces that took part in the firefighting efforts, "it was the extraordinarily strong eastern winds and the fact that after nine months without rain, the Carmel was as dry as tinder, that meant that the fire became so big, so fast. That and the lack of a national firefighting service that could respond quickly and with sufficient resources."

Forest fires are a regular occurrence in Israel but this one drew national attention almost immediately owing to its size and the fact that 42 lives were lost in a single incident.

As the flames spread, villages in the Carmel, including Usafiya, Ein Hod and Kibbutz Beit Oren, began to be evacuated. Damon Prison, with its 500 Palestinian "security prisoners", was also ordered to evacuate. A bus carrying cadets and their instructors from the prison service's officers' course made a wrong turn and was caught in the flames, as were police cars that tried to guide them out. All but three of the bus's occupants were killed.

Three police officers, including the deputy commander of Haifa Police, Ahuva Tomer, died in the flames.

The deaths and the blaze continued to spread, this time towards the eastern edge of Haifa, prompting a national state of emergency. A makeshift headquarters was set up at Haifa University, which overlooks the Carmel Forest. Firefighters from all over the country were rushed to Haifa and the IDF drafted in firefighting soldiers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who flew to Haifa on Thursday night, decided to ask for overseas help and contacted friendly governments to send firefighting planes. Britain was one of the first countries to respond, sending RAF teams and two planes from its base in Cyprus, with special tanks capable of dropping a thousand litres of water on the flames. In all, 24 countries gave aid, comprising mainly aircraft, but also firefighting experts and fire-retardant materials.

RAF Flight Lieutenant Euan Johnstone flew 20 sorties out of Haifa Airfield over the weekend until the fires were almost out. "We have been to many fires in eastern Mediterranean," he said, "but never seen such an impressive international effort by so many countries."

The fire was put out on Monday morning, but while grateful for the heroic efforts of its firefighters, Israelis were not impressed by the state of the nation's firefighting infrastructure, and the press rounded on the government.

On Wednesday, State Comptroller Judge Micah Lindenstrauss published a special report on the fire services in which he warned that they are "in danger of collapse" and blamed Interior Minister Eli Yishai for their continuing dereliction.

Last updated: 1:50pm, December 9 2010