Yesterday (December 2, 2010) at about 11 a.m., a fire started in the Carmel forest. At the time, Ivor was in the nearby Haifa University, and could see the flames from the Eshkol tower. He came home at about 2 p.m., when they started evacuating the university.
It soon became apparent that this was a very serious fire, and the fire fighters could not control it. We were instructed to close the windows and remain indoors. Here is the view of the smoke from our balcony during the afternoon. Note how the sun was covered by the smoke. It got dark early.
We started listening to the local radio station, Radio Haifa. They were our main news source during the 2006 Lebanon war, and the experience seems similar. Their professional and responsible reporting was careful to avoid reporting unconfirmed rumours, and they encouraged people to stay out of danger.
Soon we heard about the tragedies of this fire. A bus carrying cadet prison officers coming to help evacuate the Damon prison was caught in the flames, killing 40 people. Haifa's chief of police was following this bus and tried to help the victims, sustaining serious burns, and she is now in hospital in a critical condition. A few other fire fighters and police officers are injured or missing. The fire consumed Kibbutz Beit Oren after its residents were evacuated.
During the evening and night, the fire approached Tirat Karmel, a town just south of Haifa, which has been partially evacuated, and the Denia neighbourhood of Haifa, where some of the residents were told to leave in the early hours. The idea that the city itself might burn was alarming.
In the morning, the fire had moved south-west, and there was less smoke. Here is another view from the balcony this morning:
Several countries have sent firefighting planes and helicopters, equipment, and fire fighters, including Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, the UK, Spain, Egypt and Jordan.
It is worrying to realize how our fire services have been underfunded and underequipped, despite repeated warnings of the potential for disaster. This is particularly bad since Israel is a dry country and has forest fires every summer, and is also often attacked by rockets that can cause fires. The failure of the emergency services to deal with this disaster does not bode well for the next war.
This fire is also the result of the very hot and dry weather. We have not yet had any significant rain this autumn, and temperatures have been around 30 degrees C throughout October and November.
The loss of life and property is tragic. It is also very sad to think that the beautiful Carmel forest has been completely destroyed, and they say it could take up to 50 years for it to recover. Two million trees have been burned down, and most of the wild animals that live in the forest (including wild boars and jackals) are unlikely to have escaped.
My conclusions from this event: First, it is important for officials to act on warnings, such as the repeated requests for increased fire fighting capabilities, before the disaster happens. Second, this fire was probably the result of arson (or negligence), which would make it a serious crime.
I mourn for the great losses in life, property, and nature, and hope for the quick rebuilding of the damaged homes and the restoration of the forest.
This week was supposed to be a happy one for Haifa. The Carmel Tunnels opened, and this weekend I was planning to attend the Festival of Festivals, a co-existence event held every weekend during December to celebrate Christmas, Hannuka, and the closest Moslem festival (their lunar calendar means this changes each year). This has now been cancelled, but I hope to go next weekend.