'The real culprit is global warming'


As many Israelis are blaming the poor state funding of firefighting infrastructure for the quick spread of the inferno, environmentalists are pointing their fingers at another culprit - the entire international community.

Gidon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth's Tel Aviv office, said: "The fire would never have spread with such speed had there been more rainfall making trees less dry. We're in our sixth consecutive year of drought and we had unheard of high temperatures in November."

In Mr Bromberg's view, the cause for this state of affairs is global warming, brought about by worldwide carbon emissions. He believes that, as global warming continues, Israel will become drier and burning forests will become more common. "We're going to have to expect a lot more of this," he said.

The Carmel Forest, where the fire took place, is a massive green expanse, sometimes referred to by Israelis as "little Switzerland" or a "lung" of the country. And Israel is a country where trees have great emotional as well as environmental significance. Early pioneers famously drained swamps by planting, and donating trees to Israel is one of the most famous ways that world Jewry has contributed to the Jewish state.

In fact, no other country in modern times has carried out such a large-scale forestation programme as Israel.

At Haifa University, which overlooks much of the blackened forest, several academics have now turned their research capabilities to assessing damage. Lea Wittenberg, an expert on forests, has reached the preliminary conclusion that it will take between 20 and 40 years before replacement trees reach "healthy" heights and give the Carmel Forest a similar appearance to before the fire.

But on the up side, the current reality where parts of the forest look like charcoal storage areas will be relatively short-lived.

By the end of the winter, natural vegetation will make many areas "quite green", said Dr Wittenberg. Then, "in the next three or four years, 80 per cent of the area will be covered in vegetation."

As well as affecting the natural environment, the fire is also a blow to recreational activities. In the heart of the burnt region lies the Carmel Forest Spa, an upscale resort.

Eytan Loewenstein, spokesman for the Isrotel chain which runs the resort, said that in a "miracle" there was only "minor damage," but nevertheless it needs to close for a month.

He said that the views from windows and terraces are still green, but walking near the resort one sees the effects of the fire. He insisted that once the spa reopens, the fact that its previously stunning landscape has been scarred "won't interfere" with bookings or necessitate a reduction in rates.

But Haifa University geographer, Yoel Mansfeld, who is studying the likely effects of the fire on tourism, has his doubts. "If they manage to change their unique selling point to spa treatments rather than the surroundings it may recover," he said. "But it won't be what it was - the main point was the combination of the hotel surroundings and landscape, which no longer exists."

The main setback to recreation, said Dr Mansfeld, is the damage to the area of forest near Haifa University, which has long served as the "backyard for Haifa's residents", and where he estimates it will take 25 to 50 years before it is adequately shaded to restore its popularity.

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