Israel — Israel’s firefighting services require a major overhaul after years of neglect, an official report said on Wednesday, days after the country was forced to ask for international help to douse its worst-ever forest blaze.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s findings, compiled over several years and published two days after the fire in northern Israel that killed 42 people was extinguished, called for major changes and upgrades to the service.
“In view of the current circumstances, in an emergency (the fire services) could collapse under the strain which they are expected to face,” a passage in the 40-page report said.
With a paltry 1,500 firefighters catering for a population of some 7 million and almost no aerial dousing capability, Israel’s shortcomings were cruelly exposed in the blaze which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed a “national tragedy.”
Many of the country’s firefighters and their ageing and inadequate appliances were left helpless in the face of the blaze and Israel frantically recruited international help, with 35 aircraft coming to the rescue from 10 countries.
Local media assessed the cost of the damage in the Carmel mountain fire at around 2 billion shekels ($550 million) with scores of houses either totally or partially destroyed and 5,000 hectares of forest, some 5 million trees, burnt to a cinder.
Netanyahu said Israel would have to set up its own aerial firefighting capability because it was the only way to battle major forest blazes in the hot, tinder-dry summers.
The report was initiated by the state comptroller after Israel’s war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006 when the guerrilla group launched thousands of rockets that ignited many fires, although these were mainly in urban areas.
Critics said that in a future, similar war, if rockets were to ignite Israel’s forests, international help might not be so forthcoming and pilots would refuse to operate in a combat zone.
The report said that the firefighters, who are currently overseen by some two dozen local authorities countrywide, should be coordinated under a single, national umbrella body. It also said a huge increase in funding was needed.
It named some senior ministers and their predecessors, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai for the continuous failings, which had got significantly worse since the 2006 war.
“There is no central body that has the responsibility to review and decide on the fire service’s requirements and allocate assets in an emergency … there is an immediate need to resolve the funding crisis,” the report said.
It also criticised a failure to implement a 2008 cabinet decision under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to set up a national fire service but praised the allocation of an additional 100 million shekels (about $30 million) of funding.
On Wednesday, Israel’s parliament also passed the preliminary reading of a bill to set up the national fire service. Nobody objected and it passed 41-0.