Temperatures were higher than usual. No rain had fallen and the forests and brush were dry. Then came the extreme and unusually strong winds from the East. All unordinary weather for fall in Israel. The burning sun’s rays, a cigarette butt here, a forgotten camp fire there, intentional arson, and Israel’s forests were ablaze, engulfing thousands of acres of pine forests planted by the Jewish National Fund and natural forests protected by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, threatening nearby towns, settlements, villages, and the city of Haifa. An unprecedented 60,000 people had to flee their homes. Through careful preparations, reorganization of Israel’s Fire Fighting Brigades, and heroic efforts on the part of Israeli firefighters, other first responders, auxiliary units, the Israeli Army, and fire fighters from neighboring countries, Israel was able to avoid the horrible loss of human life experienced in the 2010 Carmel Forest Fires. We should not, however, take lightly the traumatic experience of those thousands of people who had to flee for their lives in the middle of the night, some hospitalized due to smoke inhalation. Hundreds of people lost their homes to the fires, and many were not able to salvage personal belongings. The Israeli government seems to be responding quickly to the victims’ plight by supplying immediate financial aid and streamlining the bureaucracy for long term claims.
According to the Times of Israel, there were 1,773 fires out of which a few dozen were caused deliberately. Thirty-five Palestinians, most from the West Bank and some Israeli citizens have been arrested for arson or incitement to commit arson. The Israeli government has declared these incidents acts of terror, enabling the tax authority to compensate the victims from a special government fund for damage caused by terror.
Experts in Israel tell us that the number of fires has not increased in the past few years but the intensity of the fires and the damage they cause has increased. Experts also agree that this is due to climate change, which is delaying the start of winter, withholding rainfall and cooler temperatures. The extreme dry conditions and strong winds did not just impact Israel; fires broke out across the Middle East including the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is proud of its forests and the fact that, unlike the rest of the world, the amount of forests increases from year to year. It should not surprise us that more forests lead to more forest fires, especially when much of the forests planted are fire prone pine. In recent years, the JNF has changed its planting policy and is planting less fire prone native varieties. It should also be noted that forest fires are a natural part of maintaining ecosystem health, and when forest fires do not threaten human life or property they can actually be beneficial, by allowing succession, new growth, and increased biodiversity. This is why controlled forest fires are tolerated by the US Forestry Service.
As unexpected as the intensity of last week’s fires and the resultant evacuations was the unprecedented international support Israel received from countries in the region including the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan. The Palestinian Authority sent 8 fire trucks with firefighters, and Egypt sent firefighting helicopters. Within Israel, Jewish and Arab citizens opened up their homes to those who had to leave their homes, without regard for religious or ethnic background. The country was united in its efforts to support the first responders, and to shelter those who had to flee from danger.
What I take away from all of this is that the world is too complicated a place to describe in a 140 character message. Climate change, carelessness, terrorism, heroism, international support, acts of human kindness, and nature’s wrath all rolled into one story. We often blame the media for focusing on conflict, strife, and negative news, but today we are the media. By sharing links to blogs, forwarding articles, repeating stories we have read or heard on social media, and recommending sources of information, we shape the story for others. We can decide if the story of the November 2016 Israeli forest fires is about the dozens of opportunistic Palestinians who may have used fire to terrorize Israelis or about the heroism of the Palestinian firefighters, and the humanity of Arabs and Jews who offered shelter to their neighbors regardless of their religion. While the world continues to be complicated, sometimes dangerous and almost always unpredictable, each of us is responsible for the conclusions we draw, the lessons we learn, and the narratives we shape.