Boaz Rakia, head of the regional fire department for Givatayim, near Tel Aviv, was among about 20 people working at the main command center for operations during the four-day Carmel Forest Fire of December 2010, which ravaged the area.
Forty-four people lost their lives, 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and 17,000 people were evacuated. Much of the forest was consumed — more than 12,000 acres and an estimated five million trees were lost.
“Because of the wind and meteorological conditions, we knew how bad it was going to be a few hours after the fire started,” he told NJJN in a phone interview from Israel. “We could not control the fire and we knew we were in trouble very fast,” he said.
Rakia will speak about the Carmel Forest Fire from the perspective of one year later, in an event sponsored by the Jewish National Fund on Monday evening, Feb. 6, in Florham Park. He will be joined by JNF Israel development director Ariel Kotler.
Kotler, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in the Negev with his wife and three children, spent nine years living in Springfield, where his father and grandfather both lived. The Kotler family still owns a house in the town.
“Some people go to Thailand; I went to New Jersey,” quipped Kotler, who arranged and joined the phone conversation, mostly to help Rakia with his English.
Rakia is one of 24 regional fire chiefs in the country. He’s been fighting fires since the age of 15.
Through it all, and especially after people died, he said, “I was thinking that I’m sorry everyone needed to wait for this tragedy to know we were right” that the available fire-fighting equipment was inadequate and out of date. He added that among those who died in the Carmel Forest fire were personal friends. “Our friends lost their lives at the beginning of the fire. The whole rest of the four days of fire-fighting in the area, we had that feeling of loss.”
Rakia estimates that there are about 8,000 fires annually in Israel, but few make the news. In fact, this past year, Rakia said, there was a fire that “nearly burned Yad Vashem,” the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, and a second that did burn 20 cars at Hadassah Hospital.
Since the Carmel Forest Fire, JNF has championed the cause of replacing outdated equipment and fire trucks. To date, the agency has donated over 100 fire trucks and equipment. Two went to Givatayim.
“My situation is not different from others around the country,” said Rakia. “We need more vehicles, more ladders, more equipment. The cost is millions of dollars, and that’s only Givatayim.”
One of his department’s trucks dates to 1989. “With that truck we can reach only a 10-floor building from the outside,” said Rakia. “At a 40-floor building, we need to go inside, using staircases.”
In addition to replacing fire trucks, JNF has also donated thermal cameras, which enable firefighters to see through the thick smoke so they can find doors and windows while inside a building.
Rakia wants the Israeli government to play a more assertive role in providing firefighters with the equipment they need.
“We have been shouting and crying about this for years but they haven’t heard us,” he said, referring to government officials. He acknowledged some movement, but not enough for his taste. “We can recognize a lot of good intention; even if they succeed, it will take a long time. There are promises on paper but in the fire stations, we’ve seen almost no change. We need more people, more equipment, newer vehicles.”
Meanwhile, Yemin Orde, the youth village that was destroyed in the fire, is slowly being rebuilt, through government dollars. In Ein Hod, the nearby artists’ village, privately owned homes are not returning as quickly.
The woodland itself is beginning to grow back, according to Kotler. “It will take a long time,” he said. But the Carmel Forest has come back from devastation before. A fire in September 1989 took about 1,500 acres, and the forest regenerated after 15-20 years. Still, said Kotler, “it’s very painful to see the destruction.”
Changes are being made, according to Kotler. In the past, Israelis built houses at the edges of forests, and urban and forest ecosystems were woven together. No more.
“Today, they are putting in roads between the forests and the houses so you can’t build up to the edge of the forest,” he said.
Rakia said he believes there may be another game-changer in the evolving political situation of the Middle East. “Israel is surrounded by enemies, and we fight not only forest fires but also fires that come from rocket attacks. The next war will be in the center of Israel, and firefighters should be prepared for many different scenarios.”
In the meantime, he said, “what the government could not do, we have succeeded to do with the collaboration of JNF.”
He added, “Since the tragedy, there is some awakening and promises in our direction. But it will take a long time for the promises to be implemented and for us to get the equipment we need.”