13 ways Israel is helping the world fight forest fires

Firefighters extinguishing a forest fire near Jerusalem in November 2019. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.

By Abigail Klein Leichman for Israel21C via JNS

This year alone, Australia battled its largest-ever bushfire, California has more than 500 blazes burning, many of them mega-fires, and forest fires have been reported in 14 other U.S. states. In August, Argentina registered 8493 fire alerts and Cyprus wasn’t far behind.

The frequency and intensity of wildfires are growing across the globe. Reasons include hotter and drier weather, poor land use management and human negligence.

Israel’s worst fire was in December 2010 in the Carmel Forest when 44 people died in the blaze. It was a wakeup call for the state, forcing authorities to rethink strategies and bring the dangers of wildfire to everyone’s attention. It even motivated employees at the nearby Google office in Haifa to build the company’s first crisis alert product.

Since 2018, the country’s professional and volunteer firefighters and foresters have not only had to tackle regular forest fires, but also had their hands full with daily terrorist arson attacks launched from Gaza on southern Israel.

In August alone, more than 450 such fires burned almost 495 acres of Western Negev forest, not counting agricultural fields. Over the last couple of years, thousands of acres of Israeli parks, fields, and forests have been reduced to ash.

“The difference between Israel and other places is the size of the country, the density of the population and long periods of dry windy weather,” says Professor Avi Perevolotsky, former chief scientist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and a retired Volcani Research Center specialist in natural resources management.

“We don’t have large areas like in Australia that can burn for days without damaging population centres.”

With such an obvious and dangerous growing problem, it’s no surprise that Israeli thinkers, innovators and aid experts are devoting a great deal of time and energy in the hunt for solutions that will do anything from prevention and early warning to fighting the fires itself. It’s also no surprise that these solutions are now attracting the attention of people all over the world.

“We try to think out of the box,” says Shay Levy, head of the National Fire and Rescue Authority’s Wildfire Doctrine Department and a renowned lecturer on forest fires.

Animals can help thwart fires
In addition to fire-prevention maintenance such as pruning lower branches to disconnect them from ground level, Israel uses grazing herds of goats, cows and sheep to create protective firebreaks around woodland areas. California, which until the 1980s used buffalo to do the same, is learning from Israel how to reintroduce this natural practice, says Levy.

Planting forests that prevent and survive flames
Forests planted by KKL-JNF cover 10 percent of Israel or 250 000 acres. They include millions of Jerusalem pine trees. In the past, fire-damaged pines were immediately removed, and new ones planted the first winter after the fire.

However, foresters learned that pines regenerate naturally and even proliferate after they’re burned. They’re highly flammable and must be thinned to prevent adding fuel to forest fires.

Today it is understood that broadleaved trees (hardwoods) are a natural firebreak. Around 2006, KKL-JNF began switching from pine plantings to less-flammable cedars, oaks, terebinths, arbutus and carob, as well as fig, pomegranate and mulberry.

Phones give early warning
Humidity data collected over four years by OpenSignal’s WeatherSignal Weather app — using sensors in 40 000 smartphones worldwide — gave Tel Aviv University environmental studies Ph.D. student Hofit Shachaf a unique way to identify and warn authorities about conditions that promote forest fires.

Drones find fire hotspots
Eliran Oren hadn’t yet graduated from Lev Academic Center Jerusalem College of Technology before co-founding FlyTech IL in late 2016. The company trains drone pilots, provides professional aerial photography and sells related technology. “We have special thermal imaging techniques to help them find hotspots that are just starting,” Oren told ISRAEL21c. “They can assess and investigate hotspots and sometimes lead firefighters to the fire.”

Streaming live video of active fires
To help emergency responders get where they’re needed faster and more accurately, Edgybees uses unmanned aircraft to stream live video from active fire areas and adds real-time augmented reality data. “We send that information back to the command centres and allow the people on the ground to plan escape routes for evacuees and where to put first responders,” says CEO Adam Kaplan.

High-precision firefighting from the air
Hydrop, a new high-altitude, high-precision firefighting solution developed by Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems, enables firefighting from the air even during night-time or in poor visibility conditions.

Fighting treetop fire
Fighting Treetop Fire is developing a system of algorithm-controlled laser beams that zap combustible foliage, controlled from a safe distance via helicopter or truck.

Cooperation abroad
In September, a 10-man delegation from Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority took off for California to help firefighting efforts for the next two weeks.

Last year, Israelis flew to assist Brazilian firefighters combatting blazes in the Amazon rainforest and Ethiopian firefighters faced with a complex fire in Simien Mountains National Park.

Helping blaze victims
Forest fires take an immense toll on residents and aid workers alike. Israeli aid agencies and companies regularly step forward to offer everything from basic supplies to water generators to trauma counselling.

Pinpointing poor air quality
The current combination of COVID-19 and widespread wildfires present serious respiratory risks as toxic smoke exposure extends far beyond areas of fire.

This is why clients in many countries are turning to live air-quality reports provided by Israeli company BreezoMeter.

Rather than relying on sensor information satellite imagery — both of which can become unavailable during a wildfire — BreezoMeter factors information from numerous data sources such as real-time traffic satellites, active fires and meteorological input.

Is it safe to go out?
Israeli weather intelligence platform ClimaCell won the “StandWithAus” hackathon held in Tel Aviv at the beginning of the year in response to the Australian bush fires.

The ClimaCell team devised AirKoalaty, an application now operating in Australia, to help people make an informed choice about when the air outside is safe for specific activities 

Drinking water from the air
In partnership with the American Red Cross, the U.S. affiliate of Israeli company Watergen sent a GEN-350 atmospheric water generator on a specially outfitted truck to provide safe drinking water to aid workers in Paradise.

Letting the forest rehabilitate alone
An important lesson learned in Israel over the past decade is to let burned forests rehabilitate naturally, under close observation.

“The soil is very apt to erosion after a fire, so we don’t even work in the burned area,” KKL-JNF Jerusalem region forest supervisor Chanoch Zoref explained to ISRAEL21c after some 4000 brush and urban fires devastated several regions of Israel in November 2016 in central Israel.

This article first appeared unabridged in ISRAEL21c.

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