Fighting Kite Terror in the Western Negev

Monday, June 25, 2018

Terror kites launched from the Gaza Strip have burnt down hundreds of acres of planted forests in the Western Negev, forcing KKL-JNF foresters to work as firefighters rather than caring for the forests they have nurtured so lovingly.

The Fire Age

In their usual daily routine, they are busy developing and caring for forests and recreation sites. As part of their training, they learn about firefighting in case a fire breaks out in a forest due to a heat wave or because of visitors’ negligence. Nothing, however, prepared the KKL-JNF staff in the Western Negev region for the kite terror from Gaza. Over the past two months, they’ve become firemen around the clock for all intents and purposes, running from fire to fire, and the end is nowhere in sight.

Meital R. Fishman, in cooperation with KKL-JNF

Kite terror continues to strike the fields of the communities bordering on the Gaza Strip with full force, causing serious damage to farmers. However, over the past few days, the extent of the damage done to the Negev forests has also surfaced. These forests have been severely harmed over the past two months, during which over 50 acres of green lungs have gone up in flames.

The burning kites (and helium balloons) arrive from Gaza all hours of the day, mainly during the morning and afternoon, when the wind changes direction and blows from the west in the direction of the Gaza border communities, causing hundreds of acres of planted forests to go up in flames. These forests are not only a green lung for local residents, but also a sort of security fence between the border communities and the Gaza Strip.

“Without detracting from the damage done to the farmers, in eight months from now their burnt fields will be green again as if nothing happened,” says Itzik Lugasi. “When my forest is burned down, it’s not only painful to me personally – after all, these are trees that I planted 25 years ago – but there’s also the knowledge that it will take the forest a long time to get back to what it was. It’s not a field that you irrigate and it grows after a few months. You need to wait from 20 to 25 years for a tree to grow. And it’s not just about the trees – one’s heart breaks for all the animals that died, the turtles, the foxes, the porcupines, the deer, the birds and their nests – everything went up in flames.”

Until two months ago, before this wave of kite terror began, Lugasi (52) worked in KKL-JNF as a recreation site coordinator in the Western Negev and the Eshkol Bloc, and was also responsible for security afforestation in the Gaza Strip border region. As a result of the kite terror, his pleasant and calm daily routine was turned into intense and exhausting firefighting work around the clock. Lugasi, like many other KKL-JNF employees, had been trained how to function as a firefighter for all intents and purposes in times of emergency. He went for extensive training and preparation and was equipped with a specialized fire truck that allows him to be the first person on the scene in the area where a terror kite lands. “Being a firefighter is not my job, but this is what I have to do because this is my life. For me, when a forest is burned down, it’s as if a person’s home was set on fire,” he says.

Lugasi patrols the area everyday with the small firefighting vehicle that’s attached to his truck, which holds 500 liters of water. “Over the past two months I’m in the field with the firefighting vehicle nonstop. It’s much more difficult for a regular fire department fire truck to enter an afforested area. I’m available with my little fire truck, which does excellent work, and can successfully provide a first response for almost any sort of fire that breaks out in the region,” he says proudly. “As part of my job, I try as much as possible to protect the recreation sites from fires in order to make it possible for local residents and visitors to come back to this region as soon as the kite terror stops. Once  we started to feel that this was serious business and not something that would just blow over, my team and I immediately began work at the recreation sites doing things like taking out dry weeds and pruning in order to prevent arson and fires as much as possible.”

Over the past two months, night and day have become meaningless for Lugasi. He’s the first one on the scene when a fire is reported and he has to fight them in a way that he never before experienced. “I dealt with forest fires in the past, but not of the proportions, mass and short time intervals like these. It sometimes happens that I’m at a fire and at the same time three or four other fires break out in the same region,” he explains.

Moshe Bruchi (55) has also almost entirely abandoned his daily tasks in KKL-JNF’s forests. He now spends most of the day focusing on putting out fires caused by the kites. During normal times Bruchi works as a supervisor in the Western Negev who is responsible for seasonal grazing in the region. “I work coordinating with the army and patrol the forests taking care of damage caused by vandalism or the weather,” he says, “but during the last month and a half, I’ve unfortunately had to neglect this sort of work entirely. I get up in the morning and have no idea what’s going to happen during the rest of the day. Sometimes I can stick to my routine and my job until noon, but other times there are already kites in the morning. My family has already realized that there’s no fixed time for me to come home – I stay in the field until the last incident has been dealt with. There’s an average of ten incidents a day, so you can understand that this has already become a part of my work routine.”

Is there a way to prevent the fires or make them smaller?
“Our goal is for there to be as few acres burnt as possible. We can’t prevent the kites from being in the sky because we don’t have the means for that. However, we do have reinforced teams in the Be’eri and Kisufim region, along with a group on call that’s attached to them. What we do is simply to chase the kites. We have a lookout person who sits in the tower in Be’eri Forest and reports to us on every kite he sees in the sky. He directs us in the right direction, but until the kite lands we’re not allowed to approach it, because the kite might be booby-trapped. When the kite lands, we come immediately to put it out.”

Shahar Azran, the youngest member of the group (24), works at the KKL-JNF Western Negev Region Afforestation Department. “Before the fires began, my workday began in the forests and recreation sites. During the summer, most of my work is watering and cleaning up after visitors in order to prepare the recreation sites for the next visitors. Now, as of noon we’re on firefighting rotation, where I work as an assistant fire truck driver,” he says.

What does your family say? They must be tense and worried.
“My family is very supportive. Sometimes we work near the border fence, and there were some fires that forced us to work right on the border. There’s some tension and concern, but at the end of the day everyone understands and supports me.”

According to Azran, “the amount of fires over the last two months is incomprehensible. It’s happened that I was fighting some fire, and while doing so I looked up at the sky and see four or five more kites on the way. It doesn’t stop, and it’s hard to see the end of this and all the damage that it’s caused. At the present, most of Be’eri Forest is totally black and charred, bur we hope to see the visitors come back and hike in this region, and enjoy the recreation sites the moment all this is over.”