Jerusalem Hills Wildfire: The Week After

Massive conflagration in the Judean Hills under control for now, but the potential for recurring blazes keeps KKL-JNF personnel on high alert.
Wildfire in the Judean Hills: The when, what, how and why; preliminary number crunch; and what’s next.

Help return the green to the burnt Judean Hills!

Beyond 3,700 acres of planted and natural woodland burning down, the fire devastated entire forest ecosystems.
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For the past few days, KKL-JNF teams have been sifting through smoking piles of ash to check for smoldering embers, which they douse with water to prevent them from roaring back to life. While the fire had already been brought under control by Tuesday evening (August 17), some spots saw recurring fires late last week. Luckily, said the Israel Fire and Rescue Service in a statement, these incidents were “contained”.

The same could not be said for fire’s initial outbreak near Moshav Beit Meir on Sunday, August 15. A combination of factors - human activity, hot weather, dried-out ground vegetation, and wind channeled through hilly topography – caused the fire to spread rapidly throughout the area. Ten villages and towns in the Judean Hills - among them Beit Meir, Tzova, Giv’at Ya’arim and Ein Rafa – were evacuated, as was the Eitanim Psychiatric Hospital. The fire even threatened to reach Jerusalem’s Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital, but thankfully didn’t.

KKL-JNF forester Hanoch Tzoref, who has worked in the Jerusalem highlands for 35 years, noted that “the strong wind created a firestorm, with flames reaching dozens of meters high. The fire’s intensity and the speed of its spread are unparalleled in recent memory.”

For 3 days KKL-JNF firefighters and associated personnel, aided by its fleet of 4x4 firetrucks, worked to battle the flames. The firefight was an immense team effort involving the Israel Fire and Rescue Service, KKL-JNF firefighting forces from all around the country, HaShomer HaHadash rangers, firefighters from the Palestinian Authority, and other groups.

Anat Gold, KKL-JNF’s Central Region Director, noted that for much of that time KKL-JNF forces were “almost alone” in battling and extinguishing the flames in the forests and open areas, allowing Fire and Rescue to focus on civilian efforts. Almost single-handedly, KKL-JNF managed to “prevent the fire spreading to more communities”, she said.
Anat Gold, KKL-JNF Central Region Director:
“The green landscape that we’re so used to seeing as we approach Jerusalem - the view of my childhood and that of so many others, is all gone”.

The scale of the fire surpassed even that of the 2010 Carmel Disaster, in which 44 people lost their lives. Unlike then however, there have been no casualties this time around, and property damage has been minimal. This is largely thanks to the fire lines created and maintained around rural residential areas by KKL-JNF as a result of lessons learned from the Mt. Carmel fires.

From an ecological perspective, the damage has been tremendous. Countless unique plants and shrubs were lost, and hundreds of thousands of small mammals and insects perished - ants, grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, worms, hedgehogs, snakes, lizards, tortoises and chameleons. Birds, and mammals that were able to escape - the gazelles, fallow deer and foxes, now have to contend with the loss of their habitat.

KKL-JNF officials estimate that it will take between 25-40 years for the woodlands to fully recover. “Burnt areas include part of the woodlands that had previously burned down in the 1995 Judean Hills fire and had recovered in the 26 years since”, Gidi Bashan pointed out.

According to Dr. Amir Givati, a climatologist at Tel Aviv University, the frequency of such destructive forest fires is expected to increase to 20-50% in the coming years. “The climate plays a prominent role…strong winds, intense dryness…we are headed to a new reality, big fires that spread quickly”, he warned. “These are things we hadn’t known until now but will happen a lot more”.

KKL-JNF’s assessment of the damage is still in progress, but what can be said for certain is that rehabilitation activities will be carried out in accordance with the organization’s restoration policy, which is based on four main components: a) Immediate safety operations in public access sites, e.g. cutting down burnt trees and removing burnt matter; b) gathering information and preparing a long-term rehabilitation plan; c) assessing damage to forest grounds and infrastructure; and d) plant renewal – observing the natural rehabilitation process over the coming winter and assessing the need for complementary plantings.