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ISRAEL: As fires ravage the Carmel, there are helping hands -- and some finger-pointing

December 4, 2010 |  7:38 am

 

Israel is burning. Since Thursday, raging flames have ravaged the Carmel, devastating one of the country's largest and most scenic forest expanses. Blown out of control by high winds that haven't let up in days, the fire has its own dynamic. And it's a violent one. The mangled, charred remains of a bus carrying prison authority officers-in-training to help evacuate the Damoun Prison stands as a silent, gruesome witness to fire's ferocity. Caught on a road at a moment the flames took an unexpected and huge leap, the cadets didn't stand a chance.

The country is in full emergency mode. That familiar sense of urgency, the wartime adrenalin, is as heavy in the air as the smoke. What's distinctly different about this situation is a feeling of powerlessness. Not only the philosophical reminder of human tininess in the face of nature, but practically speaking. Israel wasn't prepared for anything like this, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and needs help -- now.

To his credit, he recognized this immediately. Canvassing the world for firefighting capabilities, Netanyahu hit the phone. Israel, usually at the forefront of assistance to disaster areas, is now on the receiving end of massive international help. Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Russia, France, the United States and other countries flew in firefighting planes, fire-retardant agents and other gear. Egypt is offering equipment; Jordanian and Palestinian firefighters are on the ground. 

Turkey has sent planes and crews too. Netanyahu thanked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the first contact between the two in a very long time. Netanyahu told reporters that Israel would find a way to express its gratitude. To Erdogan he expressed certainty that the assistance would be an opening "toward improving relations between our two countries." Not so fast, said Erdogan on Friday. Foul-weather friendship is one thing, restoring good relations is another.

It's a humbling experience for an obstinately self-reliant nation. And an infuriating one too. Israel needs help because it doesn't really have designated firefighting planes. The army's Sikorsky helicopters, able to carry water and work at night, used to help put out fires. This was discontinued about a decade ago with the intention of purchasing designated aircraft. That never happened, despite a personal query from Netanyahu after witnessing a similar fire in Greece this summer. In the meantime, fires are being fought from above with fire retardant dropped from crop dusters chartered from two Israeli companies.

And Israel was out of fire retardant. A wave of recent fires used up all 200 tons the country had on hand. Professionals are blaming red tape and treasury shenanigans for the failure to restock. David Golan, chief executive of Chim-Nir, the flying group that supplies the crop-duster planes, says scores will be settled -- but after the fire is out. "We'll pull out the knives later," he said in a radio interview.

There are plenty of knives waiting.

Israel's firefighting and rescue authorities have been warning for years that they are near collapse due to chronic under-budgeting. Despite the state of the art abilities of the country's military and civilian emergency systems, the firefighting authority has always been a neglected "stepchild" in the security system, says television reporter Roni Daniel. "The weakest link" in the emergency services, according to defense commentator Alex Fishman.

Its likely that this fire -- when extinguished -- will produce for the firefighting authorities what the 2006 war with Hezbollah did for the army and home-front preparedness: a complete makeover and revamp. The first task will probably be to remove the fire service from the Ministry of Interior that budgets it as part of local governance, and where experts say it has no business of being.

When government neglects its national, physical and human infrastructure, it's the beginning of a national collapse, wrote analyst Ron Ben-Yishai.

In short, bureaucracy kills.

But it's also the Israeli variant of the manana mindset. Ironically, it's the same "save lives now, talk later" determination that Netanyahu is showing these last few days, throwing caution and red tape to the wind to expedite necessities, that is partly to blame. There's always a more pressing problem.

The air force has taken command of controlling and coordinating the aerial firefighting, including the foreign assistance. As many as 20 planes zipping around in a relatively small area -- as they dip into the sea for water to fight the fires and then head back to fight the blaze-- is in itself a potential disaster.

As the fire is into its third day, officials say it has already devoured about 9,800 acres of forest, on top of about 4,900 acres that have been burned in recent months. Israel, like the region, is tinderbox-dry.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video credit: Israel Defense Forces

 

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