Despite aid, Israel unable to check deadly wildfire
By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 4, 2010; A06
JERUSALEM - The worst fire in Israel's history showed little sign of abating Friday, and after two days the unchecked blaze had killed 42 people, consumed more than 7,000 acres and nipped at neighborhoods in the northern city of Haifa, Israel's third largest.
The fire had also destroyed a large chunk of the Carmel Forest, one of Israel's natural crown jewels and a popular tourist and vacation destination that is known as Little Switzerland because of its beauty.
By Friday, the flames had engulfed several kibbutzim and were racing down hills toward Israel's heavily traveled coastal highway. At least 15,000 residents were evacuated.
In a country as small as Israel, where territory is at the heart of political conflict, every inch of land is especially precious. Nevertheless, Israel has neglected to invest in the equipment and personnel needed to effectively combat wildfires that have become pervasive in recent years amid unseasonably high temperatures and periods of drought. In a country of 7 million, there are only 1,500 firefighters.
This winter has been one of the hottest and driest on record. Jerusalem rabbis this week held a special prayer for rain at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.
Fires this year ravaged parts of the disputed Golan Heights and charred nature preserves on Jerusalem's outskirts. Israel used its entire 200-ton stock of fire-retarding chemicals to battle those outbreaks, so it had none on hand when the latest fire erupted.
The country boasts the region's most powerful military and is often among the first to send rescue teams to disasters abroad, but it could not handle this fire alone.
"Our firefighting measures cannot provide an answer to forest fires of this magnitude, especially in the face of such winds. We do not have such equipment,'' Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Friday.
The fire has sparked a rally of international support at a time when Israel has felt isolated diplomatically. Turkey, which has had a strained relationship with Israel since Israeli troops seized a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in May, sent two planes. Britain, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Russia and Jordan also sent help. Turkey and Greece set aside their political differences and flew sorties together to douse the flames.
The evacuations in the north recalled the mass flight of Israelis south to escape Katyusha rocket fire from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah during a 2006 war. Acknowledgments by authorities Thursday night that they had no control of the fire raised questions about Israel's readiness to cope with another such barrage, analysts said.
After the 2006 war, a national inquiry found that Israel's fire services were underfunded and unprepared and recommended an investment in firefighting aircraft.
But even as Israel prepares to acquire hundreds of millions of dollars worth of advanced fighter jets, no budget has been allocated for the much cheaper aerial firefighters.