Carmel forest flower

Photo by Shai Levy/Flash90.
Already the first signs of recovery are emerging in the burned forests of the Carmel as cyclamen burst unexpectedly into bloom.

One week after the Hanukkah fire that decimated more than one third of the Carmel Forest, ambassadors from 21 countries and a representative of the Palestinian Authority planted saplings at the Carmel Mountain Hotel with Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) world chairman Efi Stenzler and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Over the next 12 months, about one million additional trees will be replanted in public recreational areas of the scorched bio-reserve, says Yisrael Tauber, director of KKL-JNF’s Afforestation Department.

Natural regeneration is the byword for the rest of the forest, which lost about five million pine, oak, cypress and pistachio trees along with countless plants and creatures.

The work of natural healing will be carefully monitored by KKL-JNF forest rangers and volunteers. New tree growth must be thinned to lessen the competition for scarce water and encourage biodiversity, explains Dr. Omri Bonneh, KKL-JNF northern region director, adding that “Natural selection favors pines, which are the quickest to grow, but we are interested in forests with a wide variety of trees.”

Protecting the unburned parts of the forest is another priority. Workers will thin and prune the trees, remove wood residue and tree branches that could ignite and create firebreaks – tree-free areas that act as a barrier to slow or stop a wildfire.

Concern for the Aleppo pine

While natural regeneration is considered the best course, it is slow. Following the last major fire on the Carmel, in 1989, it took 15 to 20 years for the animal life and vegetation to fully recover, says Prof. Ido Izhaki, director of the Carmel Research Center at the University of Haifa.

The good news is that if additional fires can be prevented, even more species of wildlife and vegetation are likely to appear, he adds. But that’s a big “if,” considering that since 1978 the range has suffered 500 small and medium fires, as well as nine large ones.

Soldiers helping clean up Carmel forest after fire

Photo by Shay Levy/Flash90.
Clearing up – Nahal soldiers help clean up the destruction in the Carmel after the devastating fire in December.

Izhaki tells ISRAEL21c that certain species on the Carmel have developed resilience to fire and some have even become dependent on it. The Aleppo pine is a prime example. Its cones crack open to release their seeds only under intense heat.

“After this enormous fire, the Carmel will be covered with pine buds,” Izhaki predicts. “That is what happened after the 1989 fire.”

The Aleppo pine is especially important to the Carmel, which has the only woodland forest of such trees on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

“We don’t know how many adult pines are left now,” Izhaki says, “Many of them are gone. We hope we have enough to keep this species alive.”

Help for Carmel wildlife

The devastation was not, of course, limited to trees. The deadliest fire in Israeli history, ignited the morning of December 2, by a careless teenager from the Druze town of Ussafiya, claimed the lives of 44 people. More than 17,000 people had to leave their homes as Israeli and KKL-JNF firefighters battled the blaze for five days with the help of personnel and equipment from 18 countries.

Millions of dollars worth of damaged infrastructure must be rebuilt in and around the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze towns and cities in the vicinity of the 80-square-mile Carmel mountain range, the only Israeli biosphere reserve designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The forest’s many animals also suffered. Though some fled on their own and others were helped to safety by rangers and volunteers, many weren’t so lucky. Porcupines, jackals, foxes, wild boars, songbirds and snakes were among the creatures burned to death.

“Many animals were killed in the fire, but even if they managed to survive, their habitat is gone,” says Michael Weinberger, KKL-JNF forest supervisor for the Western Galilee and Carmel Mountain.

“I saw a deer that came back to its territory, a beautiful green forest that was now black and red from the fire retardant sprayed by the fire planes. The poor thing had such a look of shock and disbelief in its gentle eyes. And there was a goldfinch that stood staring at the burnt forest, incapable of moving even when people stood right next to it. These are memories I will never forget.”

Carmel forest fire

Photo courtesy of the Jewish National Fund
The fire destroyed one third of the Carmel Forest, burning down over five million trees.

At Hai Bar Nature Reserve, fallow deer were led to a safer spot and breeding raptors were transferred to a nearby facility till after the fire was out, but the flames damaged the vulture cage and the fence around the deer enclosure.

Hai-Bar is among the places targeted for assistance by a Plant and Animal Rehabilitation Committee launched by various governmental ministries in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Nature and Parks Authority and the KKL-JNF.

In addition, Jewish relief organizations across the world launched major campaigns to raise millions for rehabilitating the forest and offering assistance to residents of affected communities.

Caring for Carmel residents

Many of the people evacuated were able to return home within a day or two, but the government had to provide mobile homes for the occupants of about 250 destroyed houses and sent emergency allocations to the social welfare departments in Ussafiya, Tirat Hacarmel and the Carmel Coast Regional Council area to cover clothing and footwear, medicines and food.

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his intention to dedicate a memorial on the first anniversary of the disaster at Kibbutz Beit Oren, one of the communities hardest hit by the blaze along with Ein Hod Artists Colony, Yemin Orde Youth Village, Nir Etzion and Ussafiya.

Volunteers headed to these areas in the aftermath of the fire and continue pitching in to repair damage and replace possessions. Just one example is a patchwork blanket project by a quilting group in Mevasseret Zion for the benefit of hundreds of Yemin Orde children who lost everything in the fire.

As one way of preventing future disasters, the KKL-JNF’s Bonneh plans to meet with residents of these communities to explore how they can strengthen their bond with the forest through environmental education and “adopting” sections to care for.

The Center for the Study of the Carmel will focus on improving the relationship between the Druze population and the biosphere, particularly in Ussafiyah.

“People are blaming the entire Druze community for the fire, and we must find ways to help them live in peace with the reserve,” states Izhaki. Residents will learn how they can benefit economically from their surroundings, such as developing businesses based on eco-tourism.