Rosh Pina, Israel — The trees, extending all the way downhill, look like blackened, spinedly skeletons, casualties of this summer’s war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. During the 33 days of fighting, Hezbollah launched almost 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, more than 600 of which fell in forests and set off hundreds of fires.
At least 750,000 trees were burnt in the fires, which the Jewish National Fund (JNF) describes as the worst in Israel’s 58-year-old history.
The quasi-governmental organization responsible for planting forests in Israel has launched a major rehabilitation project. With the help of thousands of volunteers, JNF staff have begun clearing burnt trees, pruning healthy ones and planting new trees.
It will take at least 50 years for the forests to return to their previous state, explains Omri Bonneh, JNF’s northern Israel director and a doctor in forestry.
“Most of the forests were 50, 60 years old, so there’s no way to speed it up,” he says matter-of-factly. The forests were planted by Jewish pioneers who settled the region shortly before and after the foundation of Israel in 1948, he explains.
More than 12,000 dunams (12 square kilometres) of planted and natural forest were burnt – an area about the size of Tel Aviv proper or the equivalent of 1,500 soccer fields.
“The explosion of a rocket immediately causes a fire,” explains Bonneh.
Most of the damage was done in the Biriya and Naftali forests, near Rosh Pina and south of Kiryat Shmona – the town hardest hit by Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets – respectively.
“In each of these forests about 300 Katyushas fell, sometimes in volleys of 10, which made extinguishing the fires very difficult,” says Bonneh.
Working around the clock during the month-long conflict, JNF’s fire fighters had to respond quickly to stop the blazes before they spread from ground fires to crowns, where they are much harder to defeat.
“In all, 10 out of 600 fires got out of control and developed into big fires,” he points out.
The total damage to the forests is estimated at 80 million Israeli shekels (almost 19 million US dollars), he states.
“As foresters, we have a very difficult dilemma. We don’t know whether to be happy or sad, because a Katyusha that hits here is a Katyusha that doesn’t hit a town,” adds his colleague Aviram Zuck, as the two tour Birya, the biggest man-made forest in the Galilee region.
In addition to the forests, another 40,000 dunams (40 square kilometres) of agricultural and grassland were burnt. This included 1,000 dunams of peat land in the northern Israeli Hula Valley, which had to be flooded for three weeks as the only effective method to extinguish the subterranean fires – which can reach up to two metres underground – sparked by Qatyusha rockets that fell there.
But Bonneh adds the war also had another effect: It triggered a “very large” wave of volunteers offering their help in rebuilding the forests, including university students, school children, soldiers and private families.
His organization has had to set up a telephone command centre which handles all the offers.
“So far 20,000 have signed up. Almost 4,000 have already come,” says Zuck.
“Citizens would come to us and offer help, or bring food and beverages to the firefighters,” says Boneh. The war “has created an opportunity (for people) to tune into the whole subject of forests and the environment.”
“I feel like I’m really helping here,” says Sasha Samsonov, one volunteer who has come to Biriya with a group of Jewish teenagers from St. Petersburg.
As the trendy 15-year-old dressed in torn jeans cuts low branches off a tree, to help prevent future fires from spreading quickly, she adds: