JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss submitted his long-awaited report on the 2010 Carmel Forest fire—Israel’s worst—to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday. He cited “grave negligence” in the handling of the blaze that took 44 lives and in the failure of key ministers who let Israel’s firefighting infrastructure remain inferior to those of Western countries.
Lindenstrauss assigned “special responsibility” to Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, and asserted that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch bear overall responsibility.
The comptroller refrained from calling for the dismissal of Yishai and Steinitz due to their inadequacies, saying this is up to the political echelon.
At a press conference announcing the report, Lindenstrauss described it as “one of the most grave” in his seven years in office. He began by detailing some of the reasons for what he termed the “catastrophic” situation that faced the country on the morning of December 2, 2010.
When the fire broke out, he noted, of the 450 tons of fire retardant required by regulations to be on hand to prevent a blaze from spreading, only 20 tons were actually in stock. Worse, Israel has only a quarter of the fire-fighting personnel required by a country of its size and population and only half the number of some vital equipment and vehicles.
The Carmel fire began through carelessness in a campfire in the Carmel Range forest, then spread into an area-wide conflagration driven by high winds through drought-dry woodland. It raged out of control for four days and claimed 44 lives, 37 of them Prisons Service cadets and their driver.
They burned to death when their bus became trapped by the flames en route to a Carmel Forest prison to evacuate terrorist prisoners endangered by the flames. The comptroller found that the bus was trapped due to a command failure of the police at the scene, who misdirected it because of poor communications.
The fire was the deadliest in the country’s history and the costliest in terms of property and environmental damage.
In addition to the bus of Prisons Service cadets, three senior police officers, including Haifa’s chief of police, were killed fighting the fire. A teenage Fire and Rescue Service volunteer was also killed.
“Israel is always on the ready to face external threats, but failed when tragedy struck from within,” said Rivlin upon receiving the report. “From my initial reading, it looks like the report is, for the most part, forward- looking. I do not get the sense that its aim is vengeance or beheadings, but rather to fix problems. Rage exists and that rage should be directed towards reforming the way we cope with natural disasters.”
Unable to contain the fire on its own, the government eventually called for help from foreign nations. Greece, Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, Cyprus, and the Netherlands sent personnel, equipment, and firefighting aircraft to help battle the conflagration, which was finally extinguished on December 5.
The report stipulates the government’s failures and omissions as its lack of forward thinking and being so insufficiently prepared for a massive forest fire that it essentially closed its eyes to the danger.
Most of the criticism was leveled at Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who at the time of the fire bore ministerial responsibility for the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.
The comptroller found that Yishai did not secure adequate funding for Fire and Rescue, did not concern himself with its overall operational fitness, upgrading its command and control capabilities, preparedness for disasters, and training.
Lindenstrauss found that although Yishai was aware that Fire and Rescue suffered from a severe shortage of equipment, personnel, and command and control methods, he did not take any interest in it.
Another failure was the critical lack of aerial firefighting capability, which necessitated enlisting help from other countries, including the hiring of a massive Boeing 747 firefighting plane.
The comptroller faulted Finance Minister Steinitz’s for making the allocation of budgets to the Fire and Rescue Services conditional on its implementation of far-reaching reforms. This entailed a long-standing dispute with Yishai over the issue, resulting in an all-or-nothing approach that led to disaster.
“When saving human lives from catastrophic events is at issue, a solution, even a partial one, must be provided, particularly when the allocation of resources to a reasonable extent and for defined needs could have improved the operational readiness of the entire service,” Lindenstrauss wrote in the report.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu bears complete responsibility for the government’s behavior by virtue of his position, the comptroller wrote.
“The claims and disagreements between the Interior Ministry and Finance Ministry accumulated on his desk for a long time, and it was up to him to make a decision on the matter,” Lindenstrauss wrote, adding that Netanyahu avoided acting until it was too late to avert disaster when the conflagration broke out .
Finally, the comptroller found that Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch also bears complete responsibility for the failures of the Israel Police and the Prisons Service during the fire.