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Carmel Fires Part of Global Trend

By Dr. Orr Karassin

CANCUN (Dec. 5, 2010) — The dreadful news about the Carmel forest fire raging in Israel reached our delegation to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 16/MOP 6) just as we were attending forums and workshops on dealing with the increase of forest fires throughout the world.

The terrible news arriving from Israel only added to the dismal world statistics on the spreading of natural fires and their magnitude. Ziang Ziu of the U.S. Geological Survey said that there was an overall increase in the number of fires and the size of areas destroyed by fires from 2001 to 2010 as compared to 1990 to 2000. In the present decade, the annual average is 7 to 10 billion acres of open areas destroyed by fires, an almost incomprehensible statistic. In Russia alone, 15 million acres burned last summer in 2,500 natural fires. Along with the fires, there was an 18% increase in illness throughout the country due to the heat and severe air pollution caused by the fires. This data was added to even worse data from South America, which received little attention in the media, although four billion acres were burned in 2010 on that continent alone.

One of the main reasons for the increase in the extent of fires all over the world is climate change, which causes a combination of extreme heat conditions and extreme aridity. Another contributing factor is increasing urbanization, which brings cities closer to natural areas and increases the danger to human life by fire. A good example of this was the fire three years ago that raged close to Athens, where giant waves of fire reached the edges of the city.

In many countries, as in Russia, mass migration to cities is accompanied by the abandonment of agricultural lands and the accumulation of biomass (flammable matter) in areas that were once cultivated, which greatly increases the potential for fire in those areas along with the rate of its expansion.

Not only are fires worsened by climate change, they also contribute to climate change by emitting air pollutants such as methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. U.S. Forestry Service scientists are interested in using satellite data in order to evaluate the contribution of forest-fire emissions toward climate change and to compare the extent of harm caused by these emissions with those from industry.

Because fires are not divinely decreed, it is possible, by correct means of preemption and containment of fires, to prevent a great deal of fire damage.  Nevertheless, coping necessitates great resources. For example, half of the U.S. Forestry Service's budget is directed to preventing and combating fires. Other countries maintain fleets of helicopters in readiness for fires and invest great financial resources in prevention and containment.

A new way of relating to this old but growing threat is under discussion. A more sophisticated approach is developing in the world for dealing with fires: Satellites are being used to locate fires when they break out and for monitoring fires that have already started to spread. Satellites also are being used to assist in forecasting the spread of fires. Precise forecasts provide early warning for evacuation of inhabited areas and saving lives. For example, American representatives spent an hour with us, using the Envirocast Vision Collaboration Module to access satellite imagery and show us live satellite photographs of the Carmel fire. (In appreciation, we purchased trees to be planted in their names in Israel.)

“Models developed on the basis of satellite data allow for the evaluation of the direction and rate of the fire spreading in a relatively accurate way,” said Ziu.

The sole purpose of NASA's space satellite Modus is locating fires as they transpire, gaging and mapping the expanses that have burned, and evaluating the air pollution caused by the fire’s emissions. This helps in evaluating the danger to human life, the necessity for evacuation in order to prevent harmful smoke inhalation, and in monitoring greenhouse gases emitted by fires.

“Information on developments in fire prevention and fire fighting is vital for Israel in this era of climate change,” said David Brand, director of KKL-JNF Department of Forestry. “Global warming, which lengthens the dry seasons as well as drought and damage to trees and forests by disease, requires renewed consideration and evaluation for the future. We have a lot to learn from international experience, and we will reevaluate the means at our disposal and adopt suitable methods that are in use all over the world.”




Dr. Orr Karassin is a former Green Zionist Alliance representative to the board of directors of Jewish National Fund in Israel, and an advisory-board member of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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"Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the mitzvah of baal tashchit."

- Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin 32a

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