Firefighting in the North Still at its Height

Thursday, July 27, 2006 10:14 AM
Professor Francisco Rodriguez Y Silva of Spain’s Cordoba University was KKL-JNF’s guest two weeks ago for discussions on how best to combat fires in woodland. Now KKL-JNF teams are fighting vast forest fires in both the north and the south of Israel, under Katyusha and Qassam fire, at great daily personal risk.
Since the start of the fighting approximately 10,000 dunam (about 2,500 acres) of grazing land and 6,000 dunam  (about 1,500 acres) of forest – over half a million trees lovingly tended for decades with the help of Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide - have gone up in flames. The green landscapes of northern Israel are being reduced to a scorched and smoking wasteland.


“In the course of my visit I identified areas of future cooperation between Spain and Israel on both the research and the professional aspects of forest fires and their prevention. The two countries are in a position to exchange useful information, as the basic conditions in both are much the same.”  Professor Francisco Rodriguez Y Silva, of Spain’s Cordoba University, made these comments during a five-day visit to Israel initiated by KKL-JNF Afforestation Division.


At the meeting concluding his visit, Professor Silva said he would shortly be preparing the outline of a long-term cooperation agreement between KKL-JNF and the Spanish forestry authorities. The terms of this agreement will include improving instruction methods for staff in the afforestation and fire departments and assistance or advice in acquisition of specialized equipment to fight forest and brush fires. It was further decided that a combined delegation of foresters and fire-service experts would attend an international conference on forest fires in Spain in May next year.


Prof. Silva. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive


Zvi Avni, Director of KKL-JNF Afforestation Division added that apart from offering an occasion for overall cooperation with Spain on afforestation issues, Prof. Silva's visit had provided an opportunity to improve Israel’s dispositions for fighting forest fires.  “The Spanish system is twenty years ahead of ours and since Professor Silva is among the top experts in the field of Spanish forestry and an important researcher at the University of Cordoba too, many opportunities have opened up for us.”


Professor Silva expressed his thanks for the invitation to make a professional visit to Israel, which faces similar forest safety problems to Spain owing to similarity in vegetation and climatic conditions. “We deemed it necessary to prepare a good strategic plan for fire prevention on the one hand, and on the other hand, for the prevention of damage and particularly casualties, when fires do break out. The pace of economic development has brought residential areas very close to woodlands and this has increased fire risks in recent years. The low humidity, variable winds and extremely high temperatures which characterize summer weather all make fire prevention difficult and hasten the spread of any fire which may occur.”


According to Professor Silva, modern diagnostic tools, will allow Israel to estimate the extent of the problems with the dangers they pose, at comparatively low cost. Diagnosis of this kind allows areas to be classified as belonging to a variety of risk levels and allows for periodic remapping in accordance with local changes (new residential areas, industries or visits of the public in the forest).


As part of this enhanced cooperation, Professor Silva suggested establishing an academic course system to prepare students for specialized posts in science of fire prevention. In the context of increased cooperation between the KKL-JNF and the Spanish forestry authorities, Professor Silva mentioned the links between Spain and South American countries, which suffer from problems similar to Israel’s. “It would be a mistake to think of everything only in terms of financial resources. Different operations can often be combined to form more efficient integrated budgetary bases for vital activities. That’s what we’ve done in Spain: with the help of new software, which consolidates and regulates information and measurements relating to fire prevention and suppression, we have achieved an overall budgetary saving of 30%.”


In a comprehensive opening speech to senior KKL-JNF afforestation officials and senior fire-service personnel from all over Israel, Professor Silva outlined the problem of forest fires in Spain and neighboring Portugal. He described and analyzed cases in which fire fighters and civilians had lost their lives because of mistakes in fire-fighting operations. To illustrate his point, he explained that Portugal, which is much smaller than Spain, had suffered tens of thousands of forest and brush fires in the course of last summer’s “fire season” when four million dunam of forest (approximately one million acres) were burned. Professor Silva emphasized in particular the additional risks affecting homes located in or near areas of woodland.


Zvi Avni said that in Israel this was an especially sensitive point as many communities are located at the top of wooded hills, which flames naturally climb. “I regard the creation of an infrastructure for international cooperation on the basis of shared or similar problems as extremely important,” he said. “It is clear that we have a great deal to learn on the subject and that our training and instruction levels – especially for professionals who are called in to fight forest fires - are also in need of improvement.”


During his stay in Israel as guest of KKL-JNF, Professor Silva paid a visit to the Chim-Nir Company. He visited the large woodlands of the Judean Hills and Mount Carmel to acquaint himself with the structure of the forests and the fire risks characteristic of each location. He had talks with the operators of the aerial fire service and with members of the firemen’s union in Haifa. The major fires, which have raged in the Carmel region in recent years, loomed large in the discussions.   One of Professor Silva’s recommendations was the fencing off and closing areas of woodland not traditionally used for mass recreational purposes, to minimize the human factor in forest fires in these areas.


Professor Silva concluded his visit with a meeting with the staff of KKL-JNF. At this meeting Professor Silva presented the principles of the Spanish mapping system, which divides Spain into sections of about 100 square kilometers each. A computer program defines the level of fire risk for each section in accordance with combinations of fixed criteria. The resulting map serves as a basis for determining the overall list of priorities and the allocation of fire-fighting resources in preparation for the summer “fire season.” According to Professor Silva, this is a tried and tested method of obtaining a nationwide overview of information together with a regional picture of each individual section and greatly raises the level of preparedness for fires and fire-fighting.