In wake of 2010 fire, Israel’s Carmel Forest begins to come backby ben sales, jta
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In front of him were 50 guards from a nearby prison. Behind him, a wall displayed the names of 44 students, teachers, police and firefighters who died when a school bus was engulfed by the largest fire in Israel’s history.
The Carmel Fire started on Dec. 2, 2010 and burned for five days, destroying 6,000 acres of northern Israel’s expansive Carmel Forest. Last June, the government released a harsh report criticizing the conduct of its agencies during the fire.
On Jan. 18, for the first time since the fire, families planted trees in the forest in advance of Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for trees.
Today, the area of the fire looks like a giant bald spot in the middle of a dense forest of pines and oaks. Rolling hills, bare of trees, stand encircled by verdant slopes where the ground is hardly visible. On the empty hills, a few solitary trees have survived. Many of them are black on one side and green on the other, partial victims of the fire.
Closer to the ground are rows of light brown tubes about two feet tall made from a plastic material that looks like cardboard. A few leaves peek from underneath. These are the oaks, carob trees and Jerusalem pines planted by the Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental organization that helps develop Israel’s land and nature and which is famous for planting trees across the country.
“Usually, a natural forest you leave to nature,” said Omri Boneh, director of Israel’s northern region for JNF. “But in the specific environment of the Carmel, if we don’t intervene, it will lead to a very dense forest with lower biodiversity and with great vulnerability to a future forest fire.”
JNF sits on a committee to rehabilitate the forest along with Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry. Formed in 2011, the committee has been able to accelerate its work after being granted a nearly $15 million budget last year.
The committee hopes to turn tragedy into opportunity. Its team wants to let the forest regenerate on its own but will intervene in a few ways: thinning out the pine regrowth to prevent future fires from spreading quickly, introducing new tree species and rebuilding hiking trails.
“We’re changing the nature of the character of the flora,” said Guy Ayalon, the Nature and Parks Authority’s northern Israel director. “When they’re dense, they are a risk for a fire like the one we saw.”
The authority plans to introduce more Jerusalem pines as well as oak, almond, olive and carob trees — all native to Israel and thus, explains Ayalon, in better sync with the environment.
Both men expect the rehabilitation process to take at least 10 years, by which time the newly planted trees will grow tall and thick. In the meantime, Ayalon hopes the government will keep funding the project.
“Forest care needs to happen all the time, and Israel needs to know how to invest in it,” he said. “Planting trees in Israel testifies to our roots in our homeland. But you have to make sure the trees are appropriate to their surroundings.”
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