The Forests of the Gaza Envelope are Burning, Again

Thursday, August 20, 2020 12:00 PM

Out in the field with the KKL-JNF firefighting team

KKL-JNF firefighters are working day and night to put out fires caused by incendiary balloon attacks from across the border.
Incendiary balloon terror has returned to the Gaza Border. The acrid smell of smoke again fills the air, and blackened spots are spreading over forests, nature reserves and open spaces. More than 100 fires have broken out in KKL-JNF forests over the past week, consuming over 340 acres of woodland, mainly in Be'eri, Kissufim, and Nahal HaBesor. And that's not even counting the other nature reserves, streambeds and open areas affected. These figures are relevant as of Monday, August 17, and the numbers are rising daily.
Every morning, the firefighters of the Western Negev region gather under the fire-control tower in the Be'eri Forest. Moshe Baruchi, KKL-JNF's local patroller and area commander of the firefighting forces is briefing the team and assigning tasks. "We're chasing the [explosives-laden] balloons and putting out fires from morning to night," he says. He sounds exhausted, but looking into his eyes, you can see how determined he is to carry out the mission and protect the forest.
For an outsider visiting the area, it looks like a war zone. Walkie-talkies crackle, taskforces are leaping up and running to their vehicles, on their way to another incident. For them, it's just another routine day of arsons. They receive alerts about 40 times a day. The call normally comes from the fire lookout observer stationed at the watchtower overlooking the forest. In some instances, residents or farmers working in the fields spot the fire and alert the authorities.
For Charlie Mor-Yosef, KKL-JNF forester for the Eshkol bloc, protecting the trees is a personal mission. As a forester who has served this region for over 20 years, he had planted many of the trees himself. "It's difficult to watch how the trees that we've worked so hard to plant and nurture are consumed in an instant. It'll take many years for the forest to recover and return to what it once was."
"We have to reach the center of fire as quickly as possible before the wind spreads the flames," he says. "Hundreds of balloons filled with explosives and flammable substances are released in our direction every day from the other side of the border."
Mor-Yosef stresses that it's a joint effort by all forces – the Fire and Rescue Services, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Defense Forces, and of course, KKL-JNF's firefighting teams. "KKL-JNF staff have the unique advantage of being familiar with the forest's environment. We also have firefighting equipment specially designed for forests, including two firetrucks that are adapted to off-road driving."
Terror attacks in the form of incendiary kites and balloons have been occurring for two years now, so KKL-JNF staff are already experienced in handling them. Mor-Yosef explains how they prepared in advance for the summer threat: "We introduced grazing flocks to the forest in order to reduce the amount of flammable matter on the ground. We also pruned the trees to keep [low hanging] branches away from the ground and prevent fires spreading. Had we not done that, more damage would have been done."
On ordinary days Kobi Elkabets serves as a KKL-JNF patroller in the Har HaNegev and Arava regions. During these days of emergency, he volunteers on the Gaza Border and assists the local forces. "The land had finally begun to recover after the last fires, and already see we fire consuming it again, turning the forest black. It's painful to watch this."
"As Israelis, we were raised to love the land and nature. It's just sad to see how everything goes up in flames," says Ilan Isaacson, Eshkol's security officer. "It doesn't only cause great damage to nature, it's also a real threat to our communities. We're fighting the fires to make sure they don't reach our homes."
Volunteers from the region come to assist the firefighting teams, among them Rami Gold from Kibbutz Be'eri. "It's our home and we have to protect it. It's not us coming to help. It's the firefighters who help us," he says.
Near Be'eri, a small woodland that had been planted on Tu Bishvat by the children of the kibbutz had caught fire. "Two years ago, I planted a tree here with my grandchildren and the area was burned down because of an incendiary balloon," says Gold, the anguish evident on his face. "We planted again a year later, and the forest caught fire again, this time because of a Qassam rocket that fell. It's hard to see the place burnt, but we will not break. Of course, we will plant trees here again."
When asked from where residents draw the strength to keep on replanting, Gold pauses for a moment and points to a small green shrub growing out of the charred ground. "That plant is called hairy bread-grass and it burns like a torch, but after a few days it is green and blooming again. This is who we are. We never give up."
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