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Fire on the Mountain

Jewish Ledger Dec. 10, 2010

On Sunday morning, Dec. 5, the world’s largest firefighting aircraft, the American “Evergreen” Boeing 747 Super Tanker, took to the skies over the Carmel Mountains in the north of Israel, in a final, all-out attempt to quell the flames that would ultimately consume some 12,300 acres of land. By day’s end, some 80 hours after it had begun, the worst wildfire in Israel’s history was all but extinguished…taking with it 42 lives.

As the fire that touched off on Thursday, Dec. 2 raged, the global community came to Israel’s aid. Bulgaria and Greece were the first to respond, followed by Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. They were soon joined by a host of others, including Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Azerbaijan, Romania, Russia, Cyprus, France and Britain and the U.S. It was a reversal of roles for the Jewish state: Ordinarily, Israel is the country to be dispatching rescue teams and medical personnel to countries in need of disaster relief.

“We very much appreciate this mobilization and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his country’s aid.

Throughout the day on Monday afternoon, ceremonies were held on the Israel Air Force bases of Nevatim and Ramat David to bid farewell to the international firefighting teams who had come to Israel’s rescue.

“The cooperation was excellent, reaching across barriers of language and culture,” the commander of Ramat David told the departing teams.

The blaze also sparked critics to question Israel’s preparedness in the face of more serious challenges. Just hours after the fire broke out on Thursday, firefighters ran out of firefighting chemicals. In addition, Israel does not own a single firefighting plane. Much of the criticism was directed at Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, whose office oversees fire services. In the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war, the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, issued a report highly critical of Israel’s firefighting readiness. He is expected to release another report within the next few days on the condition of the firefighting service in the days leading up to the blaze.

As the Ledger went to press, a 14-year old resident of the Druze village of Ussifa admitted to starting the fire. The teen, who was arrested, was smoking a nargila water pipe and threw a live coal into an open area before leaving to return to school.

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