Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Carmel Fire: a Sober Reflection on a Crisis

It has been almost two months since the Carmel fire, which raged on for three days, burnt 12,000 acres and claimed the lives of 44 people. This was the deadliest forest fire in the history of the state, resulting in much media banter on the effectiveness of the government's ability to respond to crises.

Was the government reaction sufficient?

Even before the scope of the fire was well understood by the public or the media and the unfortunate death of 42 prison wardens, PM Netanyahu cancelled his daily program and rushed to the scene of the action. Shortly after, he came out with an appeal to countries of the world in request for reinforcements and firefighting aircraft, which the state is lacking. The response quickly came. The most noticeable assistance came from Russia, but the support of Greece, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan is also noteworthy.

The sad part about all of this is the media barrage Netanyahu was facing. When he rushed to the scene, there were accusations of over reaction. When he appealed for help, he was accused of degrading his own country. When the supertanker was ordered - too little too late. When it was sent into action - expensive overkill.

Truly disgusting.

Were the fatalities preventable?

Probably not, unfortunately. Most of the victims who paid their lives during the fire were prison wardens who were tasked with evacuating Palestinian prisoners from a near by facility. Unfortunately the fire spread quickly and their bus was trapped. No fire truck or supertanker could have saved them.

Is it Yishay's fault?

In Israel, the interior ministry is responsible for fire services. The current minister is Eli Yishay, the leader of the Sepharadic Religious party, Shas. It has been long claimed  that Israel's fire services are underfunded. But since the media loves to lynch a religious minister, Yishay came under a disgusting attack from the media.

As a member of the coalition, a minister gets to divert a certain discretionary budget towards his/her representative sector. In Yishay's case it's a network of Yeshiva's and religious educational centres, as well as benefits for orthodox religious scholars. While I completely disagree with public money being diverted that way, this practice is not new. Not only that, but certain pundits in the media has made it seem as if only Shas' annual discretionary funds were diverted to firefighting, everything would have been fine and dandy.

Somehow the country has managed to survive for 62 years without this extra budget. This was in a sense, the first major natural disaster to strike the state. Even if a lot more money was being invested in firefighting, it would have been probably squandered in bureaucracy and on unnecessary expenditures.

On the positive side?

The vibe in Israel during those three days was intense. The country is extremely interconnected and the type of solidarity that was felt in the entire country, I have seldom encountered anywhere else.

The response was quick and regional cooperation was solid and even surprising.


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