Monday, December 6, 2010

Lessons from the Carmel Fire

The forest fire on Mount Carmel was put out on Sunday night, after three and a half days of intensive efforts. Here are some of the things I have learned from this tragedy:

First of all, it seems that Israel needs a serious public fire safety education program. The fire was probably started by someone's negligence, and the thought that a moment's carelessness can lead to such a vast disaster is very scary.

I was deeply disturbed by the seeming lack of coordination between the various emergency services, at least at first. Ideally, I would have expected there to be clear procedures defining the responsibilities of each body and the chain of command. I heard there were cases where the police were ordering an evacuation of certain streets, while the Mayor was saying he hadn't ordered this and people should stay at home.

Israel's fire services are the smallest and least equipped in the developed world, which is incredible considering that Israel is a hot and dry country that sees forest fires each summer, and that the value of land here is high. I have been speculating that perhaps part of the problem is that young Israelis wishing to help save lives and property are more likely to think they will do this during their military service. I don't think I have heard Israeli children wanting to be fire fighters when they grow up. Perhaps now the status of fire fighters will improve.

The lack of coordination and the sorry state of Israel's fire services do not bode well for the home front during the next war.

Of course, my main feeling after this ecological and human tragedy is deep sadness. But there are also some behaviours and attitudes that made me angry:

  • People who stopped their cars or slowed down on the roads to see the fire and take photos, making it difficult for the emergency vehicles to get into and out of the crisis area, and creating traffic jams that slowed the evacuation.
  • People who later tried to enter evacuated areas to get a good view of the fire fighting planes, giving the police extra work in trying to save their lives.
  • People who were evacuated and returned to their homes before they were allowed to, presumably to try to save something they had left behind, risking their lives and endangering the emergency staff who had to evacuate them again.
  • Those who quickly assumed that the fire was started either deliberately or negligently by Druze or Arabs. This racism is not helpful, and even if it turns out to have been negligence by two Druze youths who are being investigated, this should not lead to blaming their whole community.
  • Arsonists who started other fires in other parts of the country, forcing the fire fighters to split their forces. The cruelty of such actions is staggering.
  • The Israeli Minister of the Interior, Eli Yishay, who will not take ministerial responsibility and resign. In other developed countries, it is considered the decent thing for a minister to resign when something goes wrong. Here, Israeli politicians' first concern is to shift the blame onto someone else (often previous governments) and avoid or deny any responsibility. I would say "Shame on you!", but they are impervious to the whole concept of shame or decency.
  • Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who claimed that the fire was punishment for people not observing the Sabbath. Expressing such opinions is offensive, divisive, and shows an incredible degree of hutzpa.
Looking on the bright side, there are also many things I am grateful for:

  • The immediate response of many other countries in sending Israel their fire fighters, planes, and equipment. It is gratifying to know that in cases of ecological disasters at least, the world does not hate Israel. It is also good to be on the receiving end of the sort of help Israel routinely sends, such as Israeli field hospitals and rescue teams sent overseas following earthquakes and other disasters.
  • The fire fighters were able to prevent the loss of many houses (though not all), and even managed to save most of the animals in a wildlife sanctuary on the Carmel.
  • The Israeli public demonstrated its caring side when many volunteers came out to help the emergency staff and the evacuees.
  • And finally, this morning I was woken up at 4 a.m. by the sound of the first rain! Even though it would have been more useful earlier, it is still going to help prevent the fire from breaking out again in the burned areas, and I am always grateful for rain.

1 comment:

ariadne said...

Reading your blog today after such a long time of having lost it made me think that same things happen to other countries. When we had the great fires in Ilia we had similar problems. The various services that could not
cooperate,the people who did not want to evacuate,the minister who did not resign,the arsonists who were not caught,the negligence of an old woman who put the fire(?),the private sector who ran and helped out of charity(?) where the governement could not manage,the foreign countries who helped. But what still remains in my eyes and heart is the picture of the burnt car which a woman took to escape along with her own children and the children of her neighbours and they were all burnt.Devastation!Tragedy!Ariadne from Greece!