After Carmel Fire, Sprouting Seeds, Struggling People

Revival: Burnt trees bring new life to the
ravaged forest.
NATHAN JEFFAY
Revival: Burnt trees bring new life to the ravaged forest.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published June 08, 2011, issue of June 17, 2011.
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Last December, this place was hell on earth. The largest wildfire Israel has ever seen raged across the land, destroying every sign of life in its path. Now, six months later, nature is restoring itself while some of the human lives and homes destroyed by the fire show little sign of recovery.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared shortly after the fire that his government “must help the evacuees rebuild their homes and rehabilitate the infrastructures” and do so “as quickly as possible.” But in early June, 20 families whose houses were damaged or destroyed by the fire learned that the Finance Ministry rejected “state legal responsibility for general damages caused by the Carmel Fire,” according to a letter that it sent to the families’ lawyer, Hezki Friedman. While the state may choose to allocate some compensation, this would be pending further investigations, the ministry added, without specifying a timeframe.

“We were left with a car and my wallet; everything else, including toys and our toothbrushes, was ash,” one of Friedman’s clients, Hagit Natan, told the Forward. “The prime minister said, ‘We’ll take care of everybody,’ but it’s clear I’m on my own.”

At the time of the fire, Natan, 42, was living in a rented 400-square-foot apartment on Kibbutz Beit Oren — a tenant of the kibbutz, not a member — and couldn’t afford insurance. All she has received from the government is 2,500 shekels ($750) each for her and her 3-year-old son in the immediate aftermath of the fire (a standard payment for all evacuees), and rent assistance for three months in her new home. She was able to replace only some of her possessions, including the bed she needs for her work as a massage therapist, thanks to donations from friends, family and strangers.

While the stakes are high for Natan and two other former Beit Oren tenants, they are even higher for homeowners. Friedman’s other clients are the 17 families from the Ein Hod artist village whose homes were badly damaged or destroyed. Most say that they can’t afford to rebuild without government assistance — which, as in the case of the Beit Oren tenants, has not been forthcoming.

At the same time, organizations that have asked for help from the government seemed to have received a better response.

Arel Artzy, secretary of Kibbutz Beit Oren, told the Forward that the state offered to pay 40% of the cost to rebuild 36 apartments that were destroyed. Given that insurers will pay another 40% and the kibbutz can afford the last 20%, he said the kibbutz is “absolutely satisfied.” Artzy attributed the contrast with Ein Hod’s situation to the fact that the kibbutz has “more strength.”

At the Yemin Orde children’s village, where the fire claimed 22 buildings, including staff quarters, emeritus director Chaim Peri said that the government has done a “superb job” clearing the damage and providing temporary housing. As the village is an educational establishment funded heavily by the government, the Education Ministry is contributing toward rebuilding. “We only have praise for how the government has lived up to its promises and commitments, which we didn’t think it would,” Peri said.

In addition to the human victims, the Carmel Forest, the so-called lung of northern Israel, was also devastated in the fire. But it, too, is slowly recovering, and much more uniformly than the people who once lived in its shadow.

The burning branches that the fire threw into the air, spreading the destruction to new stretches of forest, also disseminated the beginnings of new life. The pinecone, it turns out, is nature’s black box, surviving intact amid the ruin.

The fire claimed gazelles, foxes, porcupines, jackals and an estimated 5 million trees. It reached some 6,200 acres of the forest’s 47,500 acres. But as it blazed, pinecones safeguarded their cargo of seeds for the next generation of pine trees, surviving the heat and positioning themselves in the ground, where they waited for spring.

On June 5, half a year after the final day of the fire, pine seedlings were everywhere. Poking out of the ground to a height of 2 or 3 inches, in some parts of the forest you could see four or five of them in a single square foot.

In the days after the fire, many Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora presumed that they would soon be asked to donate trees to replace those that were destroyed. In fact, money will be needed to do the opposite — to counteract the evolutionary genius of the pine. Unless many of the millions of new pine seedlings are uprooted, the forest will become too thick for the ecosystem, presenting an even greater fire risk than it did before.

“It’s a lot of money that will actually have to be spent on cutting down trees,” said Ben Rosenberg, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s ecologist for the Carmel region.

Pine trees showed the best ability to spread their seed, but other species have also made a good effort at self-preservation. Oak trees and pistachio trees — the two most common trees after pine — have their own survival mechanism, via their roots. In many places, small new shoots are sprouting from the roots of seemingly dead trees. Many of the clumps of green branches are nearing knee height.

The recovery of oak and pistachio trees is important for the Carmel Forest, as they are more fire-retardant than pines, which produce a large amount of highly flammable sap. Standing on high ground in the forest, you can see patches where there are burned pines all around but a cluster of oaks and pistachios intact.

In the devastated areas, even the ground one walks on is different than it was before the fire. In some places, smoldering wood turned the soil to red clay. Everywhere, the fire loosened the earth, and heavy rain and wind have further eroded it — meaning the ground is typically 1.5 feet lower than it was.

Despite this erosion, nature does seem to be returning. All sorts of grass and natural vegetation are starting to cover the earth and, in their small way, are helping to solidify it. There are splashes of color, with long stems of yellow mustard flowers and many lotuses. There are even fragrant herbs, including marjoram.

The two organizations that manage the forest, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Jewish National Fund, both agree that it should largely be left alone for two to three years.

Israel Tauber, director of forest management at Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, thinks that when the time comes for some intervention, it could be animals, not humans, that are best positioned to remove unwanted saplings and other excess growth. “With more and more science we have less and less grazing, but it’s much cheaper than humans, and animals have far less impact on the ground than humans, tractors and mechanical tools,” Tauber said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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