An unprecedented ferocious wildfire – causing death, destruction and heavy losses – was raging since Thursday morning through Mount Carmel in northern Israel, threatening to reach the southern outskirts of the country’s third largest city, Haifa. Despite the rapid arrival of more than 30 fire-fighting aircrafts from all around the world, Israeli security forces have managed only last night to contain what seems to be the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.
Two teenage brothers are under arrest on suspicion of negligent conduct that police say was responsible for the blaze. The fire has left 12,000 acres of burnt forest, and damaged five million trees, with the government estimating immediate losses at $70m (€52m).
Endless hours of TV coverage and grieving family members recounting the lives of their loved ones caused a war-like atmosphere, with Israelis asking themselves if such a disaster could have been prevented. Long accustomed to being a leading exporter of humanitarian aid, Israel has had to rely this time on foreign aid, including the largest fire-fighting aircraft of its kind arriving from the US. And despite the deteriorating relationship, Ankara sent two fire-fighting aircrafts – seen here positively as a reciprocal gesture for the Israeli aid given to Turkey during the heavy earthquakes of the 1990s.
Political fallout might still lie ahead for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Writing in Sunday’s Haaretz, columnist Amir Oren called the fire “Netanyahu’s Hurricane Katrina”. Ben Dror Yemini, on the other hand, writing for the daily Maariv, warned of the Israeli almost-automatic tendency to blame each other, and instead called for cool-headedness in finding future solutions.
But aside from technical issues, serious policy adjustments regarding the impacts of global warming seem to be needed. According to the Israel Meteorological Service, last month was the hottest and driest November in the last 40 years. Furthermore, the last 11 months (starting January 2010) are the hottest ever recorded.
Alon Tal, Professor of Environmental Policy from Ben Gurion University and Chairman of the Israeli Green Movement, says that the global climate change caused this wildfire to be a whole new ball game. “We are witnessing an unprecedented situation: December is here and we haven’t had a drop of rain yet. Fire fighters in the Carmel told me that they have never encountered so rapid and strong fires. Everything caught fire immediately because it was so dry.”
After the war with Lebanon in 2006, says Tal, in which thousands of missiles caused fires all across northern Israel, many fire trucks were replaced with new ones. “Millions of dollars were spent,” he says, “but even with the modern trucks, the last few days seemed like fighting cannons with pistols. This time they just didn’t have a chance.”