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ISRAEL: Carmel fire is finally under control

December 5, 2010 | 11:02 pm

The massive aerial offensive is over. The efforts of dozens of assorted aircraft that flew hundreds of sorties in three days were crowned by two round trips of the gigantic Evergreen supertanker that finished off the job, the peak of a splendid air show. The commander of Israel's air force thanked the many foreign teams that took part in the huge effort, and the skies over Haifa are suddenly silent. 

After days of flames that gripped the Israel's Carmel woodlands and mesmerized the nation, came the magic word everyone was waiting for. "Control has been attained," announced Fire Chief Shimon Romach Sunday evening, and police officials allowed all but one evacuated community to return to their homes.

Still, "control doesn't mean it's over," cautioned firefighter Boaz Rakia, who expects renewed outbursts of flames in numerous hot spots. Firefighters will remain widely deployed, he said.

Earlier in the morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the weekly cabinet meeting in Tirat HaCarmel, one of the affected communities where thousands of people had been evacuated. "We must help the evacuees, rebuild their homes and rehabilitate the infrastructures and we must do so as quickly as possible," he said.

Netanyahu instructed ministers to expedite damage assessment and compensation plans and allocate an immediate $17 million. He also asked to see a plan for rehabilitation of the Carmel landscape and wildlife within 21 days.

Initial figures estimate the overall damage caused by the fire at $450 million, according to the Maariv daily, which also said that had the money been spent in the right place at the right time, these costs could have been avoided.

Shelly Yechimovitch, a Labor party lawmaker, is among the only legislators who regularly attended the parliamentary committee discussions concerned with the poor state of Israel's firefighting authorities. She has followed their plea for funding for several years. The events of recent days have sparked a campaign calling for the head of Eli Yishai, minister of Interior Affairs from the ultra-Orthodox party  Shas, which isn't shy about using political clout for its own interests. But the left-leaning, staunchly secular legislator dismisses this. "Pointing to him as a scapegoat is entirely without grounds," she says. 

Yechimovitch, one of the last remaining socialists, blames the Finance Ministry for systematic attrition in Israel's public services, drying up their budgets until they beg for privatization. Firefighters have been worn down by the system, she charged.  She spared harsher words on a day dozens more victims were being laid to rest.

The lack of preparedness for the forest fire also shows that Israel may not be ready for war, either.

Although the war against Hezbollah in 2006 led to a military overhaul and national scale drills held on a regular basis, other areas of preparedness still need some thought. Haifa was well within Hezbollah's rocket range in 2006, and targeted frequently. Any one of the nearly 4,000 rockets fired into Israel that summer could have set off such a fire that would have constituted another front, forcing authorities to prioritize disasters and resources. As it was, a quarter of a million trees were burned down that summer.  Haifa offers another challenge. The bay-area industries that include refineries and other chemical-heavy plants are a first-class strategic target. The Ministry of Environmental Protection admitted in recent days that it wasn't fully prepared for a major hazardous substance event. Already now, authorities are warning the public to avoid contact with residual fire-retardant chemicals.

Earlier last week, one of Israel's main cellphone companies, Cellcom, was paralyzed, leaving more than 3 million subscribers out of touch for an entire day. Though eclipsed by the fire, the national-scale meltdown requires some thought in an emergency context. Cyber-terrorism wasn't ruled out.

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Both the Palestinians and Turkey downplayed their firefighting assistance. But diplomacy under fire also has its own dynamic. After Netanyahu called Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and thanked him for his country's help, an Israeli diplomat was dispatched to Geneva to meet with the Turkish foreign undersecretary in an effort to repair relations. Turkey has insisted that relations can't be improved unless Israel apologizes for the flotilla takeover, while Israel says it will do no such thing. But Netanyahu said Israel would "find the way" to express its thanks.

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Monday morning brought with it the other word Israelis have been waiting for besides control: Rain. But experts warn heavy rains after fires can sweep away topsoil and ash, impairing the forest's ability to rehabilitate itself and increasing the threat of flooding.

 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

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