|Carmel on Carmel
By Amanda Jaffe-Katz
Technion Prof. Yohay Carmel says all is not lost for evergreen forest
Prof. Yohay Carmel
According to the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael), Israel is one of only two countries in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees. Yet, the December 2010 Carmel Forest blaze is said to have burnt some 5,000,000 specimens. What lessons can be learned from the recent inferno that wreaked such havoc, stealing lives, destroying homes, and pushing the emergency services way beyond all known limits?
All fires in Israel are man-made, whether set on purpose, or caused by accident. “Putting out the fire should be considered the last measure to be taken,” explains Prof. Yohay Carmel of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “But first, in terms of forest management, we should ensure that the forest is less flammable and that any fire is less likely to spread.”
One of the contributing factors to the scale of the fire is the predominance of pine trees in Israel’s forests. The fast-growing, sun-seeking, indigenous Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis, known locally as the Jerusalem Pine), is highly flammable. Mature trees, replete with resin, literally add fuel to the fire. Early twentieth-century foresters in other countries also favored this tree for its ability to thrive, and in Spain, for example, where the Aleppo Pine is not native, there are forests where it is prevalent and it has also been implicated in wildfires.
“The real damage of the recent fire was to lives and to property; the ecological damage wasn’t so great,” Carmel says. “The landscape is harmed but it is not true ecological damage as nothing has been lost forever and the forest will regenerate naturally. Yes, there is a need to restore buildings but let the forest fix itself,” Carmel advises, and acknowledges that the Minister of Environmental Protection agrees. “Rehabilitating the forest is a waste of time and money.” Instead, he implores the authorities to direct intervention toward other forested areas that remain highly vulnerable. He believes that a national program to facilitate this process should be implemented.
Predicted fire hotspots on the Carmel
Counterintuitively, there are even certain advantages to such a seemingly devastating occurrence from an ecological perspective. “The biodiversity increases and we will see a broader variety and greater quantity of wildflowers - such as cyclamens, anemones, and other geophytes,” Carmel, head of the Ecology and Environment GIS Lab, explains. Even within the vast area (on the local scale) ravaged by the fire - 35,000 dunam or 8,650 acres - there are green islands that were not affected. “The vista will also be more varied in the coming decades. We’ll soon see trees of many different ages here.”
But, Carmel explains, this act of burning and promoting the biodiversity should have taken place in a controlled, active manner and not randomly as dictated by the forces of nature. After the “big fire” in the Carmel Forest in 1989, when “only” 3,000 dunam burned, an investigative committee had recommended that preventive steps should be taken, namely, creating fire breaks with no or restricted vegetation and limiting the kind of vegetation that proliferates in the woodland by thinning out and controlled burning. Further, when the plant life does regenerate, livestock or human volunteers should be put to work to keep it cropped. Sadly, these guidelines were not heeded.
In 2006, Carmel and his colleagues - Technion Prof. Maxim Shoshany, their graduate student Faris Jahshan, and Dr Shlomit Paz of Haifa University - developed a novel method for mapping fire risk and applied it to Mount Carmel. They presented the JNF with the results of their research that predicted fire risk, using Monte Carlo simulations of fire spread. The off-the-shelf software that they used, FARSITE, a two-dimensional fire growth and behavior model, simulated fire spread throughout the 300 km2 Mount Carmel region, adjusted for the local topography, climate, wind conditions, and vegetation. The scientific paper expanding on these results was published in 2009 in Forest Ecology and Management.
“This was the first time that fire behavior was used to predict fire risk, and this approach enabled the production of a uniquely high resolution fire risk map” Carmel says. Repeated iterations were overlaid, producing a map of ‘hotspots’ and ‘cold spots’ of fire frequency. The results revealed a clear pattern of fire spread, which interestingly pinpointed those very areas ravaged by the latest fire. Sadly, Carmel correctly predicted Kibbutz Beit Oren, surrounded by pine trees, as being where “You can smell the potential catastrophe.” Ofer Forest, also specified by the research, was saved - this time round. “It will burn in the next fire,” Carmel says drily.
“What no one expected,” Carmel says, “is that a single fire could burn such a large area. The effects of global warming - no rainfall that left the trees dry for nine whole months rather than the usual six, and the unprecedented eastern wind that hit in December - surprised everyone.”
On a brighter note, Carmel says that we will shortly see if the natural regeneration of the wooded areas, through the sprouting of seeds dispersed by the fire, has started.