Burnt Trees and Charred Earth in Jerusalem’s Arazim Valley

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

This Lag Baomer (May 26), scores of wildfires blazed all over the country, five of them in forests around Jerusalem.

Wildfires are a constant threat to Israel’s forests and open spaces, and on Lag Baomer, the holiday when children make bonfires outdoors, the danger increases. This Lag Baomer (May 26), scores of wildfires blazed all over the country, five of them in forests around Jerusalem. The hot, dry wind ignited the remains of bonfires, which caused serious wildfires. One of the largest was in Jerusalem Park in the Arazim Valley.

Gidi Bashan, the KKL-JNF Community and Forest Coordinator for the Jerusalem and surrounds region, was the first to notice the fire and report it. “I was called to Jerusalem for another forest fire, and on my way there I saw big clouds of smoke rising from the valley,” he said. Tens of KKL-JNF workers and three KKL-JNF fire trucks joined forces with Israel’s Fire Department in an effort to suppress the wildfire. They battled the blazes for many hours. Residents of the Ramot neighborhood in Jerusalem, and people in the town of Mevasseret Zion, were evacuated from their homes because of the danger. Hanoch Tzoref, KKL-JNF Highland Region Director, was among the fire fighters in the vicinity of the Ramot neighborhood. “The fire spread right up to the edge of the houses. The firebreak constructed in the forest by KKL-JNF a few years ago was what saved the neighborhood,” he said.

By the time the fire was under control, hundreds of dunams of planted forest and natural woodland had gone up in flames. The vegetation and the wildlife living in the forest took a severe blow. Fortunately, however, thanks to the swift action of the fire fighters, no people were harmed, and no infrastructure was damaged.

The 9/11 memorial site, which was constructed by KKL-JNF with support from its friends in the USA to commemorate the victims of the terror attack in 2001, was unharmed. Bashan, who had been working in the area during the fire, said “The fire spread around the memorial site and the nearby recreation area, but it bypassed them and didn’t damage them. It seems to me like some kind of a miracle.”

Bashan noted that we have been seeing more forest fires in recent years and greater damage caused by them. “The reasons for this phenomenon include deliberate arson, the negligence of hikers and the successful afforestation and greater density of Israel’s forests,” he explained.
Three days after the big fire, the landscapes in the Arazim Valley looked terrible. The ground was charred, and the smell of scorched wood was still in the air. Small bits of ash were flying around in the breeze. A pair of gazelles ran by over the blackened earth. Remains of snails that had been burnt to death were scattered on the ground. Hardly any insects could be seen except for one yellow butterfly flitting among the charred bushes, apparently wondering where all the flowers had gone. The birds singing all around sounded more sorrowful than ever.

“Some of the plants and animals here are endemic to the area. This is one of the important assets of the park,” said Bashan, “and only in the next few years will we know to what extent the fauna and flora have been harmed.”

The Jerusalem Park in the Arazim Valley preserves the open landscapes of the Jerusalem Hills, with small springs, ancient agricultural terraces and remains of groves from the past. The paved bicycle trail that goes through the park was not damaged by the fire, and cyclers whizzed by now and again, gazing sadly toward the burnt forest as they rode by.

The people at KKL-JNF do not waste time, and they are already thinking about the long process of rehabilitation expected in the forest. “Our current approach is to let nature rehabilitate itself,” said Hanoch Tzoref. “Our tasks at the moment are to measure and mark the burnt area. We’ve already done the first observation in order to locate dangerous trees, and within the next few days we’ll be checking the area and responding accordingly. Among other things, we’ll be checking for landslides and fissures that need attention.”

KKL-JNF foresters will continue to observe the renewal of the forest over the next few years, sometimes also giving nature a little push if necessary. Tzoref specified the work anticipated. “We’ll fell the trees that didn’t survive and remove them from the area. Trees regenerate naturally, and our job is to thin the new sprouts and prune wherever necessary so that the trees grow tall. It will take thirty years for the forest to be restored to what it was.”

Beyond grieving at the loss of the old forest, Bashan also sees the fire as an opportunity. “We have a chance to promote a sustainable forest that enables different species to live in it, a forest that would be more resilient in the face of wildfires and diseases. This fire is a sign that we should intensify the community activities in the forests and continue developing community forests throughout Israel. If more people are involved in protecting the forests and in educating the youth, maybe we’ll be able to prevent future fires.”