Israel: Forests and Forest Fires (IFFN No. 15)

Forests and Forest Fires in Israel

(IFFN No. 15 – September 1996, p. 2-6)


Only 3.7 percent of Israel’s territory is covered by forest, either natural or man-made. The Mediterranean climate is predominant in about 40 % of Israel and around 70% of man-made forests are located in this region. Thus, the forested areas are proportionately very low, when compared to other Mediterranean lands such as Spain (13.8 %), Portugal (28.7 %), Cyprus (16.6 %) or Morocco (8.0 %) (Velez 1988). Even these limited forest areas were achieved only after an extended afforestation effort which was first carried out by the British Mandatory government and the Jewish National Fund (JNF). After 1949, when Israel became an independent state, forests were planted by the Government and by the Jewish National Fund. These bodies are responsible for the planting and maintenance of almost all the man-made forests in Israel. Most of the Mediterranean vegetation, including the forests which covered Israel-Palestine in the past, was destroyed by overgrazing and over-cutting, thus not allowing natural vegetation to recover. Over-cutting of woods by the Ottoman Government of Palestine also suppressed vegetation regeneration.

In 1949, the Jewish National Fund faced the enormous task of maintaining natural vegetation and adding new forests to the bare land. In 1995, forests covered 826,598 dunams (82,659 ha). According to the outline of the national plan for forestation, by the year 2020, 161,864 ha will be covered by forests, namely, the present forest areas will double in size (Jewish National Fund 1995).

Biogeography of Forest Fires in Israel

Forest fires have always been frequent in Israel. In the past (1950s, 1960s), agricultural burning (deliberate fires lit to burn wild vegetation in order to prepare fields for cultivation) was one of the main causes of fires; negligence and burning cigarettes were secondary causes. An important category was, then, and still is, “unknown causes for fires”. It is most likely that many of the unknown causes were actually human-caused fires, but in most of the cases the fire investigators were unable to establish a clear link between human factors and the fire. Other factors found responsible for fires in the late 1950s and early 1960s were: military training, agricultural waste burning, hikers, campers and smokers. Table 1 presents the size and distribution of forest fires in Israel between 1985 and 1995.

Mediterranean forests consist of oaks and bushes. They differ from grazing areas and wildlands, which have no trees, but are covered with grasses and small bushes.

Table 1 points to some interesting features in the pattern of forest fires in Israel. First, most of the fires take place in the man-made forests and not in the natural Mediterranean forests and wildlands. However, the burnt area in the wildland and natural forest is very extensive, perhaps because the fire fighters do not hurry to put out these fires, or because they start in remote areas and are reported relatively late, after extensive damage has already occurred. Because the species in the natural Mediterranean forest are relatively fire resistant, these fires cause minor damage. As Table 1 points out, the variation in the size of burnt area is wide: it could range between 671.4 ha (1986) to 14,430 ha (1988).

The easterly hot dry windy weather known as Khamsin is the most dangerous weather type for forests and many forest fires start in this type of weather. Kutiel (1992) found that all the major forest fires in the Mount Carmel region took place in Khamsin type of weather and that strong easterly winds were blowing in the very large fire on Mount Carmel in September 1989 which affected 600 ha of natural and planted forests. Other very large fires on the Carmel in 1983, 1989 and 1990 spread very rapidly because of the Khamsin conditions.

Fire Causes

The first and most important cause of forest fires in Israel is arson (Table 2). In the 1980s and early 1990s arson comprised about one-third of all forest fires in Israel — a very large proportion. Some of the sources for this arson were identified as the work of criminals whose sole aim was to collect insurance money. Many cases of arson in the late 1980s, however, were directly related to the Palestinian uprising (Intifada). Palestinians used fire as a means of their resistance movement as early as the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, but in the 1980s it was adopted as a highly visible action against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Arson was found to be easy to execute: all one had to do was cross the old border, which was unguarded and open to all, start a fire in one of the many forests which straddle the mountainous areas near the border, and then disappear. The occurrence of forest fires in areas adjacent to the old “Green Line” border between Israel and the West Bank was very frequent: in the years 1988-1990 between 288 and 388 forest fires were caused by arson and took place in areas near the old pre-1967 border (Kliot and Keidar 1992). In some of the fires which took place in northern Israel, Israeli Arab Palestinians were found to be responsible. These fires were extremely remarkable because 1988 was also rich in precipitation and, as a result, the vegetation concentration was highly combustible. Intifada-induced arson gradually faded out as the uprising started to die out in the early 1990s.

Fig.1. Distribution of forests in Israel in 1990
(will be added later)

The origin of fires in Israel reveals a prominent human element, through both negligence and incendiarism, but also by arson. Most of the other causes of forest fires in Israel are classified as incendiary: hikers who light fires, military units in training, farmers, are among the major instigators of accidental fires. Table 2 presents data on the catalytic agents of fires in Israel in selected years. There are five major incendiary causes for forest fires in Israel. First is the military: Army units who train with live ammunition in fire ranges near wildlands and burning waste in army camps cause, on the average, 5-6 percent of the fires.

This type of fire prevails in northern Israel and the Golan Heights where many of the training areas (and forests) are located. A second category of accidental forest fires are the fires started by hikers and people who visit the forests for recreational purposes. Recreation in JNF forests became very popular in the second half of the 1970s, as changes in the patterns of leisure activities were taking place among the Israeli public. As a result of a successful effort to re-educate people who hike or camp in the JNF forests, figures for this type of fire have been greatly reduced. A third grouping of fires is that of agricultural fires, namely fires which were accidentally started by farmers who burn agricultural waste, such as dry wood and vegetation, or other refuse which is a by-product of their everyday activities. Finally, the number of fires caused by arson, namely fires set with the sole intention of destruction, is on the rise.

One important factor which may exacerbate the human nature of fires are natural conditions. The first such condition has to do with the vegetation associations present in the Mediterranean ecosystems. After repeated forest fires the dominant plants and plant associations in both oak and pine groves are changed and replaced by a brush cover, small bushes and grass. Eventually, after some years, the pine will regain its hold.

Tab.1. Size and distribution of forest fires in Israel between 1985 and 1995.
Source: Jewish National Fund, Forest Department, 1985-1995 Reports.

Causes of forest fires in Israel 1987 – 1995

The policy of afforestation, which did not introduce many varied species of tree to the Israeli forests, led to monospecies forests which grow over extensive and continuous areas, causing the fires to spread very easily and widely. Meteorological factors, such as dry and windy summers, create suitable conditions of humidity in vegetation for a minor source of heat to be the origin of a large conflagration. And as already mentioned, years rich in precipitation leave lush, but highly combustible vegetation; thus, forest fires after rainy years are extraordinarily damaging. The accumulation of combustible material in all types of forests, naturally enhancing the probability of many powerful fires, is another very influential factor.


a – Includes agricultural fires
b – Includes planned fires

In conclusion, the catalytic agents of forest fires in Israel are only slightly different from the causes of fires in other Mediterranean countries. Lightning as a cause of fires is more important in other Mediterranean countries than in Israel, but negligence and incendiarism are similar in their relative importance in both Israel and other Mediterranean countries. Arson comprises a large grouping in Israel compared to other Mediterranean countries. The most important category of forest fires in Israel and in the Mediterranean at large, are fires whose catalytic agents remain “unknown”, as detecting unequivocally the causes of fires is often an impossible task. Improvement in forest fighting technology and in forest management has been found to be useful in reducing the damage caused by forest fires in Israel.


Jewish National Fund, Forest Department. Fire Reports 1985-1995.

Kliot, N. and G.Keidar. 1992. Forest fire incidents in Israel and their human sources. Horizons in Geography 35-36, pp.22-34 <in Hebrew>.

Kutiel, H. 1992. Weather conditions and suppression of forest fires in Israel. Horizons in Geography 35-36, pp.35-42 <in Hebrew>.

Velez, R. 1988. Forest Fires in the Mediterranean countries. Documentos Del Seminario Sobre Metodos Y Equipos Para La Prevención de Incendios Forestales, Madrid: ICONA, pp.50-59.

From: Ms. Nurit Kliot
University of Haifa
Department of Geography
IL – Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905

Fax: ++972-4-8246814

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