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Behind the Headlines: Israel’s Worst Forest Fire Destroys Property and Trees

Moshe Meir’s property is one of the best-tended in the picturesque village of Shoresh, high in the hills of Jerusalem.

Meir was among the founders of this moshav, established back in 1948, after the fighting for Israel’s War of Independence had ended.

The flowers and shrubs around the rambling bungalow are at their best this time of year. Even at night, their bright hues are visible by moonlight.

But the house itself, Meir’s pride and joy, was a smoldering shell Sunday night, in the aftermath of the worst-ever forest fire to strike Israel.

The fire swept through several villages lining the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, injuring some 40 people from smoke inhalation, forcing significant evacuation from nearby villages and causing an estimated $30 million in property damage.

Many of the injured were released from hospitals Monday morning.

Police and firefighters are still uncertain about the cause of the fire. Although arson has not been ruled out, many experts are pointing to negligence as the more likely culprit.

The blaze was exacerbated by unseasonably high temperatures that prevailed Sunday — nearly 100 degrees in the shade in Jerusalem.

The Jewish National Fund, which was responsible for planting most of the 2 million trees and 6,000 acres of land that were destroyed, has vowed to rebuild.

“We shall overcome,” said Moshe Rivlin, JNF’s world chairman. “Our afforestation experts are already drawing up plans for the areas most severely hit.”

It was here, in Shoresh, that people were most directly hit by the conflagration.

Moshe Meir, along with 30 other families in the little, friendly village, lost their homes to the fierce, arbitrary flames.

Fierce, because within minutes they raced through wooden roof timbers, bringing down the burning-hot, blackened tiles upon the homes and their contents. Arbitrary, because even though some homes were completely gutted, others remained entirely untouched.

Meir and his son-in-law, picking through the ruins in search of items of sentimental value, described the huge gusts of wind that sent sparks from the surrounding woodlands flying into their village to wreak their ghastly destruction.

The sparks danced through the trees, skipping over one house, alighting another and consuming it in flames.

The pall of thick grey smoke that covered the area and much of Jerusalem itself left a residue of filth over everything.

At midnight Sunday, with the main target of the fire under control, hundreds of small fires could still be seen from the hilltops, eerily lighting up the wooded slopes.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman visited the area Sunday night, offering consolation to the shocked residents. And during a visit to Shoresh, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied by several other government ministers, promised government assistance in rebuilding the area.

Some residents in the region expressed anger over the way the fire was handled once it broke it.

“It could have been contained had the authorities put firefighting helicopters up in the air fast enough,” asserted one resident who identified himself only as Shimon.

“As it was, by the time the copters went to work, it was too late for Shoresh,” Shimon, a forester by profession, said as he sat stroking a small dog outside the smoking husk of his once-handsome home.

Shimon blamed the Israeli air force for the crucial delay.

Other residents blamed the fire department or the police for what they, too, saw as slowness in deploying fire engines quickly and intelligently.

But some old-timers, though stunned by the extent of the disaster, maintained that given the high and changing winds that blew through much of the day, there was little that could have been done once the blaze took hold.

Rabin has appointed a commission of inquiry to look into the cause of the fire and the way it was handled.

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