After Israeli fire, a hands-off approach to the forestland

Alleppo pine trees like the ones pictured here are expected to sprout again soon in the burned Carmel Forest. (KKL-JNF Archive)

Alleppo pine trees like the ones pictured here are expected to sprout again soon in the burned Carmel Forest. (KKL-JNF Archive)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Omri Boneh has been in a daze since the massive fire in Israel’s Carmel Forest.

The director of the northern region of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, Boneh saw decades of the agency’s work destroyed in the four-day inferno, which reduced swaths of the verdant forest in northern Israel to a black, dead landscape. Boneh had personally planted thousands of the trees over a 25-year career as a forester on Mount Carmel.

But Boneh, whose name means “build” in Hebrew, doesn’t want to dwell on the past; he’s already thinking about the future.

The first step for rehabilitating the forest, Boneh says, is waiting, allowing nature to take its course. It’s called natural regeneration.

"Planting, which is probably the most important action in forestry, will be just in case natural regeneration is not adequate," said Boneh, who has dealt with the aftermath of five other significant fires on Mount Carmel.

The most recent blaze, which broke out Dec. 2, was at least six times as large the next worst fire. Some 12,000 acres of land were burned and 5 million trees consumed. Forty-three people were killed and 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

Late last week, four days after the fire was extinguished, Israeli Environmental Minister Gilad Erdan convened the first government committee on the rehabilitation of plant and animal life for the Carmel Forest region.

The committee agreed that natural regeneration was the best course of action and that no planting would take place in the Carmel in the coming year. The committee also suggested that buffer zones with sparse vegetation should be created between communities and roads to prevent the spread of fires to populated areas, as well as in large forest areas to prevent the spread within the forests.

Approximately $46 million would be needed for rehabilitation, the committee estimated. That includes rehabilitating plant and animal life and preventing soil erosion, and infrastructure repairs of trails, roads, camping grounds and observation points.

Compensation to the victims of the fire and their families would add to the estimate.

Not everything in the path of the fire was burned indiscriminately. In some places the fire skipped a hill, valley or field; in others homes were spared. Boneh said he found that some of the groves he planted at the beginning of his career were only partially damaged. He called the surviving trees “a good start for the next generation."

Ido Izhaki, head of the University of Haifa’s Carmel Research Center, has been researching the Carmel region since a major fire there in 1989. He agrees it would be a mistake to plant new trees on a large scale in the wake of the fire.

"The forest needs to be left alone to recover, with only minimal human intervention," Izhaki said.

Most of the trees burned were Allepo pines. Seeds from the massive trees, which have adapted themselves evolutionarily to forest fires, were released from the trees’ pine cones by the heat of the fire and were spread far and wide by its coals and winds. These seeds will begin sprouting in a few weeks, according to Boneh.

At some point, he said, foresters could become involved in "selective thinning" to limit the new forest’s density and help young trees grow, as well as some planting to ensure biodiversity — creating a mixed forest by re-introducing broadleaf trees such as oaks, carobs and other species natural to the area. Some of those trees also will begin to regenerate naturally soon, with sprouts emerging from the stumps of the destroyed trees.

Fires also contribute positively to a forest’s growth, Izhaki said.

Following a massive fire in the Carmel Mountains in 1989, he said that “We observed the development of flora and fauna in the region and saw that some 15 to 20 years after the fire, the forest reached a climax in terms of its fauna and vegetation diversity. This indicates that after about this amount of time following a fire, the forest will be home to more species of wildlife and vegetation than there were before the fire.”

Fires, however, are only beneficial to biological diversity if they are infrequent. Today, due to human factors, the frequency of fires is too high, and thus the forest’s recovery is likely to take longer, Izhaki said.

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