On Dec. 2, 2010, the sky over the Carmel Ridge in northern Israel darkened at 11:07 a.m. At this time of the year, clouds typically blanket the sky, bringing refreshing early-winter rains after the long, dry summer months. On this day, however, plumes of thick smoke covered the sky. Over the next three days, Israel would experience its largest recorded forest fire. Although not as big as those in other regions of the world, this fire was a seminal event in the densely populated country — it consumed 2,250 hectares (5,560 acres) and killed 44 people.
Large wildfires greater than 100 hectares had not been documented in the region until recent decades, primarily due to a lack of a mature forest. Exploratory expeditions in the 19th Century describe most of what is now Israel as denuded of vegetation, with the Carmel region as covered by a suppressed forest of dwarf trees. The British Rev. Henry Baker Tristram, who traveled through the region in 1857 and 1863, described the Carmel Ridge as barren and exposed, dominated at the lower elevations by Prickly Burnets (spiny, cushion-like shrubs) and at the higher elevations by "trees of no great size." This sparse maquis — the Mediterranean basin equivalent of North American chaparral — has similar structural properties but is made up of short tree species such as Quercus (oak) and Pistacia (shrubs and trees in the pistachio family). British expeditions that mapped the region under the auspices of the British Exploration Fund during the late 19th Century also identified a patchy landscape of scattered maquis and isolated stands of Aleppo pine (the only pine species native to Israel).
During the 1920s, the British mandatory government conducted the region's first large-scale afforestation efforts in an attempt to establish a protected park. These efforts continued more intensively following the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948. By the 1950s, 3,000 of the approximately 16,000 hec-tares of open areas in the Carmel region were planted with various pine species.
Alongside these reforestation efforts, two other processes led to the expansion of densely vegetated maquis. First, timber harvest, which was carried out particularly for tinder provision, was strictly banned in the region. Second, grazing gradually diminished as it became less feasible, and in attempts to protect the natural areas, goat grazing was actually outlawed in open areas. Together, these processes led to a rapid growth of forest and maquis occupying most of the open areas of the Carmel Ridge. In 1996 the Carmel Biosphere Reserve was established over most of the region in an attempt to preserve its natural, undeveloped state.
A GROWING TREND
The Spanish plant ecologist Juli G. Pausas suggests that the abandonment of agriculture around the Mediterranean basin has inadvertently led to many areas becoming densely forested, with a corresponding increase in the number of fires and areas burned. This process has occurred at the Carmel Biosphere Reserve with the maturation of the maquis and forested areas. In addition, the growth of the human population in Israel, coupled with the increased quality of life and decreased availability of open spaces and natural areas, exerts higher pressure on outdoor recreation sites.
Until the late 1970s, only four large fires had been documented in the region, but since 1983 there have been 10. Calculating the time intervals between large wildfires in the Carmel region since the earliest archival records from the 1940s yields a mean return period of approximately one large fire every six years up to the end of the 1970s, and one nearly every three years since 1983. These results clearly highlight the changes in fire frequencies and regime.
Similar to other places around the world, fires do not occur randomly within the region. A 1992 study suggested that more than 99% of the fires in Israel are from non-natural causes, and practically none has been reported to be the result of summer thunderstorms. Wildfire causes include recreationists' negligence, arson and acts of terrorism. There is a strong correlation between fire location and human activity, with fires concentrated in the northern part of the area. An analysis of 167 points of fire ignition indicates that most of them occurred in close proximity to roads and recreation areas.
This pattern may be attributed to the structure and distribution of vegetation communities. Of the approximately 15,700 hectares of the Carmel Ridge, close to 2,400 are covered by pine stands of various species — approximately 15% of the area. Of the 167 fires for which the location was known, 20 occurred in pine stands, amounting to 12%. The analysis of the total area of different vegetation types consumed by fires tells a different story, however. From 1983 to 2009, large fires consumed a little over 1,700 hectares. A random distribution of fires would suggest that 15% of burned vegetation would be pine stands, but in reality they amounted to more than 45% of the burned area. Therefore, the fire patterns observed at the Carmel Ridge depend not only on human activity and forest maturation, but also on the structure of the vegetation community.
CARMEL IN 2010
Before the Dec. 2, 2010 fire, the total Carmel area consumed by large wildfires was 1,700 hectares, and this fire scorched and burned another 2,250 hectares. Unfortunately, Israeli wildland firefighting knowledge is extremely limited. The combination of fuel built up in the forested areas with the meteorological conditions during the event resulted in uncontrollable conditions — conditions for which Israeli firefighting agencies lacked sufficient skills, experience and equipment. Terms such as flame height and fire-line intensity were foreign to the firefighters, and consequently the results were fatal.
The fire broke out following an eight-month period without any significant rains. During the two weeks prior to the event, relative humidity was below 20%, and on Dec. 2 it dropped below 10% as a result of easterly winds blowing at a mean of 20-40 km/h with gusts of 80 km/h and higher. The fire was started by two teenagers playing at the edge of Usefiya village, which borders the forested areas. By the time the first fire engine arrived at the scene 30 minutes later, not much could be done to extinguish the flames, although the firefighters did not know that. Preliminary FlamMap simulations, based on partial meteorological data available from the time of the fire, estimate that flame height exceeded 19 meters and that fireline intensity was greater than 40,000 kW/m. Photographs taken during the fire suggest that flame height was likely even higher.
Officially the fire was contained on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 5. A satellite analysis conducted by UNOSAT, a branch of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, indicates that most of the area burned during the first 24 hours. Using MODIS-derived images based on 1 km2 resolution, 24 pixels were identified as burning during the first day, 15 pixels during Dec. 3 and 11 during Dec. 4. The first 24 hours were the harshest, revealing Israel's lack of firefighting knowledge and experience in managing such an event. Because of the lack of understanding of fire dynamics, spotting and flame behavior, the area was not sealed off to vehicle movement. In an attempt to evacuate prisoners from a penitentiary in the heart of the forested area, a bus with 37 cadets of the Israeli Prison Service was sent uphill, in the direction of the flame front. As it reached the firefront, it tried to return, unsuccessfully. All of the cadets died, along with the bus driver, three police officers, two firefighters and a 16-year-old firefighting volunteer.
By the late afternoon of Dec. 2, approximately 100 fire engines were mobilized to the area, and all off-duty Israeli firefighters were called in. Fixed-wing crop-spraying aircraft were loaded with fire retardant (each carrying about 1 cubic meter of chemicals), although supply had been depleted by grassland fires, which are not as infrequent as large forest fires. During summer 2010, fires consumed more than 10,000 hectares of rangelands, requiring nearly all of the annual supply of fire retardant. Plus, no one assumed that a forest fire could break out during what is supposed to be the middle of the winter. By that evening, the fire still was not under control, and all fire-retardant supplies for the aircraft had been exhausted.
CALL FOR HELP
The Israeli government then issued a request for assistance from the international community. Twenty countries responded to the call, and both aerial and ground firefighting forces began arriving by the morning of Dec. 3, including forces from the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Altogether, 46 aircraft arrived, ranging in size from Bell 205 helicopters to the Russian Ilyushin Il-76, and began helping control the fire. On Dec. 4, the Israeli government contacted Evergreen International, and asked to hire the B747 Supertanker, which arrived the next day. The Israeli police took control over the central command, which coordinated all firefighting efforts and emergency services. Additionally, two Israeli Defense Forces engineering battalions were sent to assist the firefighters and crews of the local land stewardship agencies that fought the flames along with international crews. The Israeli Air Force commanded and coordinated all the airborne firefighting forays.
Alongside the firefighting efforts, people from villages and towns threatened by the fire were evacuated. As the fire progressed west toward the coast, 17,000 people were ordered to leave their homes. Approximately 250 buildings were damaged by the fire, and several dozen were completely destroyed as the fire blazed through the outskirts of the villages of Beit-Oren, Nir-Etzion, Usefiya, Yemin Ord, Tirat Hacarmel and Ein-Hod. In Israel, houses are commonly constructed from concrete blocks, so it was relatively easy to contain the fire in villages. The damaged buildings usually were found in the outer row of houses.
Until 11 a.m. on Dec. 5, humidity was still low and southeast winds continued to blow strongly. By that time, the western firefront had reached the coastal plane, a region characterized by agricultural fields and very sparse maquis. On the northern front, the fire had reached forested areas that had burned during 1998, 1999 and 2005, and fuel loads were approximately 20% to 30% of those found in a mature forest. Thus, on both of these fronts, the fire had exhausted its own fuel supply. The combination of reduced fuel availability and aerial firefighting efforts resulted in a significant reduction of the area burned. Additionally, meteorological conditions changed dramatically, as the wind shifted west from the Mediterranean. Relative humidity sharply climbed to 90% by 5 p.m., when the central command issued a statement proclaiming full control of the fire.
The 2010 Carmel Fire was the largest forest fire to date in Israel, causing the highest number of fatalities and the most damage to property. This fire — as well as the 1989 Carmel Fire (530 hectares) and the 1995 Sha'ar HaGuy Fire in the Jerusalem Mountains (1,250 hectares) — is considered a "national fire" due to its immense impact, which turned public attention to the problems of forest fires.
Prior to final suppression of the flames, an emergency meeting of the Israeli Cabinet was convened to discuss the immediate operations needed to rehabilitate the damage from the fire. The task was delegated to the Ministry of Environmental Protection in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Finance, the Jewish National Fund (KKL) and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (NPA). In accordance with the government resolution, representatives from these agencies and academic experts formed a steering committee. The committee's goal was two-fold:
- Bring together existing knowledge from various disciplines to articulate practical recommendations for the immediate action necessary to maintain public safety and successfully rehabilitate the region's flora, fauna and soils
- Develop a new, long-term management agenda aimed at preventing the recurrence of large fires and minimizing damage from future events
The committee's main recommendations include preserving the landscape patchiness created by the fire and providing optimal conditions for renewal based on natural growth. The intention is to preserve a natural ecosystem, or as close to natural as possible, using management tools "native" to the system such as grazing and pruning. The recommendations call for applying these management practices more intensively around villages to create protective buffer zones. Although it is widely accepted that fires have been historically used by livestock growers as a management tool for opening the forest, no one agency is willing to take the risk of conducting prescribed fires in such a densely populated area.
If one can find advantages in the 2010 Carmel Fire, it is in the opportunity to rethink and gradually alter the composition and structure of the landscape while accepting that the region's current state reflects the subjective policy implemented during the past century.
Dan Malkinson, a landscape ecologist, and Lea Wittenberg, a geomorphologist, conduct research on wildfires and their impact on various ecosystems throughout northern Israel. They both work in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Haifa, Israel.