The ‘Hot’ Topic of the Summer – Don’t Say We Didn’t Tell You…

Anyone who’s been caught in a fire knows that it is a dubious experience that we would all prefer to avoid. However, as surprising as it sounds, fire has an important role in nature. In this article we’ll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about fires and their prevention.

We all remember that Thursday, December 2nd, 2010, the day a great fire broke out on Mt. Carmel and blazed for five days before it was finally extinguished. This was an extraordinary fire in terms of its extent, its intensity and the cost we paid in human lives. Recently, we experienced another fire, very close to home, last November in Zikhron Ya’akov.

The Israeli summer is getting hotter and hotter, and this does not facilitate fire prevention. In recent years, we have seen a trend of increasing frequency and extent of wildfires in open landscapes. Most wildfires in Israel break out following human activities; in combination with climate change and extreme climate events, such as autumn drought, their intensity also increases.

The wildfire season in Israel usually extends from May to November – dry vegetation, strong winds, and heat waves provide dangerous “flammable material”. We must also consider the topographical conditions that influence fire behavior, such as the tendency of fire to spread more rapidly upslope.

Fire also has its benefits
It may surprise you, but fires also play an important role in certain ecosystems: they facilitate removal of surplus organic matter from the forest soil or return of minerals and nutrients to the soil for the plants to use. Furthermore fires also facilitate regeneration of the forest and encourage germination of certain species. Wildfires were, apparently, a natural component of the local dynamics for thousands of years, evidenced by the rapid regeneration of a large proportion of the local plant species of the region after fire events.

Damage caused by wildfires in natural areas is usually short-term, while in the long term, forest and woodland wildfires are likely to maintain and improve the ability of the system to recover after different disturbances. However, none of us likes a burnt landscape, and does not wish to be caught in the real danger to lives or possessions that may be caused by a fire.

Fires in forests and open landscapes are classified into three types: ground fires, surface fires and crown fires. Ground fires involve low vegetation, tree roots and plant litter (dead plant material). They spread relatively slowly and may last a few days. Surface fires are more common and spread relatively rapidly burning mainly dry herbaceous vegetation, but are short-lived, lasting only until the available flammable material is exhausted. These two types of fire may easily develop into crown fires as soon as contact is made with an area of forest or dense woodland. A crown fire may destroy entire forests within only a few hours as it spreads from tree to tree at a speed of 30 km/h, due to dry air currents or strong winds. In contrast to ground and surface fires, a crown fire can ‘jump’ over natural barriers such as paths or fuel breaks, making control and management of the fire very difficult.

Burning to prevent fires
Did we already say that man is the main cause of fire? You should also know that this is not just because of negligence or malice, but also as a tool for controlling wildfires. Small fires at high frequency, as it seems occurred for thousands of years, successfully thinned the vegetation and prevented accumulation of large amounts of flammable material. It turns out that in the absence of small, localized fires, flammable material accumulates in the soil, while the vegetation grows uncontrolled, and thus a small, uncontrolled brush fire may easily develop into a large, dangerous crown fire.

In certain parts of the world, such as Australia and the USA, it is an accepted practice to initiate controlled, prescript fires in order to reduce the amount of flammable material in the area and prevent larger fires. In Israel, some limited attempts have been made to initiate such fires, mainly within the framework of ecological and forest research. Safer solutions for coping with forest wildfires include regular thinning of planted forests, increasing the grazing intensity of cattle or small ruminants in fire-prone areas and creating fuel breaks along the interface between open landscapes and human settlements or roads. These actions reduce the amount of flammable material in the treated area and neutralize the next wildfire that reaches the area. Despite the accumulated knowledge and experience gained from performing these actions for the prevention and reduction of wildfire damage, the authorities are often reluctant to prioritize and fund preventative actions, only to find themselves paying double to extinguish fires and compensate for injuries and damage to possessions and rehabilitation.

At Ramat Hanadiv, we invested greatly in studying and reducing the risks and the intensity of damage from the next wildfire, as well as improving our readiness to respond when it comes. Preventative actions are based mainly on operating a targeted grazing program that combines a seasonal herd of cattle with a mixed herd of goats and sheep that graze in the area year-round. Along the interface between the Nature Park and the southern neighborhood of Zikhron Ya’akov we defined a fuel break area which is subjected to heavy grazing combined with massive thinning of the vegetation every few years.

And what can you do?
In case you observe smoke or the beginning of a wildfire in any part of the park, don’t hesitate to immediately call the Fire and Rescue Services hotline (102) and/or the ranger on duty at Ramat Hanadiv (053-6452336). When reporting it is important to stay focused and to describe the location of the fire in detail as well as the type of fire – ground, surface or crown. Don’t forget to provide your details so that we can get back to you for more information.

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