Environmentalists worry about ecosystem recovery after massive fire in Jerusalem area

It is difficult to assess the extent of the ecological damage caused by the massive fires that have ravaged the Jerusalem hills since Sunday, turning some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of forests into scorched earth.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, who visited the region on Tuesday, called the damage “unfathomable”, with “entire areas of functioning ecosystems completely wiped out”.

“There is no doubt that it will be very difficult for the nature of the hills of Jerusalem to rehabilitate itself,” she said.

It is not known whether the fire was started on purpose or not. With no summer storms in Israel, fires are still man-made.

Yariv Malichi, central district environmentalist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, told The Times of Israel that he feared the complete destruction of the region’s fungi and insects that form the basis of the web of life.

“The temperatures were so intense that we are worried about the creatures that live underground,” he said. “He hit the reset button for the bugs. We’ll have to see how they recover.

Fire Marshal Dedy Simhi provides an update on the fires in the Jerusalem hills to Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (in black) and other ministry officials on August 17, 2021 (Courtesy)

Malichi said that unlike the massive 2010 fire in the Carmel Mountains in northern Israel, the areas destroyed by this week’s fires are surrounded by nature reserves that were not damaged.

These provide sanctuary for some of the larger mammals that may have escaped the flames, such as deer – reintroduced to Israel after locally disappearing – and gazelles.

A young fallow deer injured in the Mount Tayassim fire in Jerusalem on August 17, 2021 (Ariel Kedem, Israel Parks and Nature Authority)

As for the smaller creatures, such as lizards, chameleons, hedgehogs and snakes, Malichi estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have been burnt alive.

Creatures such as snakes and rodents provide food for predatory birds, which tend to return to the same place every year to nest, he said.

The burnt remains of a lizard in the hills of Jerusalem, August 17, 2021 (Yaniv Cohen, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

But the trees have disappeared, and the birds will have to find housing in other places, where there is competition and little free space.

And with so many fearfully dead butterflies, caterpillars and ants, who will pollinate the flowers?

“The whole balance has been shaken and we don’t know where things are going to go,” he said.

The fire has rid thousands of dunams of all the plants that grew there, meaning that when the winter rains come, before the annuals sprout, there will be no roots to hold the soil together. thin mountain together.

Malichi said he feared the rains would wash away the soil in the valleys, with all the seeds waiting to germinate.

He wondered if the orchids – of which 15 species bloom in February, drawing crowds to Mount Tayyasim – will bloom as before, now that the pines are gone.

An immediate headache is how to get rid of jeeps and motorcycles passing through sites after the fire.

Nature does not recognize the void and environmentalists are waiting to see which species will settle first. A likely candidate is the invasive Australian blueleaf acacia, which germinates easily in disturbed soil and lines the sides of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway with yellow flowers each spring.

Acacia with blue leaves. (Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Common)

Mediterranean forest tree species, such as oak and pistachio, are able to regrow after a fire.

The plight of the eastern red-barked strawberry trees – known in Hebrew as ktalav – will depend on the condition of the symbiotic fungi, without which they cannot grow, said Malichi.

Experts from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and the Jewish National Fund KKL-JNF, both responsible for different areas that burned this week, agree the best way to help nature grow back is to leave her alone. But they don’t agree on how to handle pine, whose resin and needles make it so easily flammable.

Pine skeleton burnt from a major fire in the Jerusalem hills, August 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

With the exception of a few remaining old stands, most of Israel’s pines were planted during the British Mandate and then by the KKL in the early years of the state, as they were the only species that could grow on land. which had been rendered sterile. by centuries of deforestation and uncontrolled grazing.

The pines do not survive the fire. But their cones, programmed during the evolution to wait for the strong heat before opening, liberally release their seeds after fires on the ground, made fertile by the ashes and devoid of competition. They germinate en masse during the first two winters and, if left on their own, develop into dense, highly combustible tree stands that keep other plants from growing and animals from entering.

Pines, like those in the Kommemiyut forest in southern Israel, are highly flammable. (Shmuel Bar-am)

Following the 2010 fire in Mount Carmel National Park and Nature Reserve in northern Israel, in which 44 people died, the state began investing funds in fire prevention.

Amit Dolev, INPA’s northern district ecologist, has set up a forestry team to ensure trees are thinned regularly; that pine seedlings are removed year after year before they reach sexual maturity; that herbivorous animals, from cows and sheep to gazelles and deer, be allowed in to keep flammable grasses low; and that fire breaks are created and maintained to prevent flames from spreading.

“After the Carmel fire in 1989, we left some areas alone,” Dolev said. “Today, the density is such that you cannot even enter it.”

Dr Yehoshua Shkedy, Chief Scientist of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority. (Courtesy of INPA)

INPA chief scientist Dr Yehoshua Shkedy went further, saying there were too many trees in the country and needed to be thinned to prevent future fires.

“We want a lot of trees so that they can absorb carbon dioxide, but when they burn they emit even more,” he said. “Our country is not adapted to such a density of trees. We are living with a time bomb.

But Nurit Hivshar, head of the central forestry department of the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, said: “There will always be fires, with or without the pines.

The organization removed pines from particular places, such as shrub habitats and agricultural terracing areas, but said it saw no point in removing them from forests in general if they were not found. not near residential areas.

Most of the pines planted since the early years have collapsed due to aphid infestations. Some have been replanted, while others have sprouted and sprouted on their own, she said.

Environmental activist Alon Tal, now a member of the Knesset and involved in forestry for years through the KKL, said: “There is a lot of misinformation about strategies for restoring burnt forests. The big lesson from the last 20-30 years is that nature and natural succession (the process by which forests grow back in stages) remains the best strategy. This is why the KKL forest policy says to do nothing for two years.

“The public wants to see the plantation, but that’s not what it takes. Typically, what comes out of it is more robust and authentic than what it replaces.

Domestically, some 10,000 laying hens were burned alive when their shed caught fire near the moshav of Ramat Raziel.

A burnt down chicken coop in which 10,000 laying hens perished, at the moshav of Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem hills, August 17, 2020 (Hatem Awadalla, Mateh Yehuda Regional Council)

Other than that, the only domestic animal that would have perished in the fire was Alice, an elderly dog.

Initially rescued by the police in Ksalon, Alice was later freed and ran towards the house, only to die in the flames.

Dr Gil Hacohen, director of the veterinary service of the Mateh Yehuda regional council, told The Times of Israel that the service had texted all pet owners, with the name of the animal, asking them not to forget their animals if they were evacuated.

The service also evacuated hundreds of animals from an educational institution and dozens of dogs from a pound.


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