12/06/2010 04:36

The horrendous fire will stimulate a rebirth in the lost forests and result in an impressive return of animal biodiversity, experts say.

Although the grief of the families who lost their love ones to the fire will remain forever and the trauma of property loss will be relieved only when new homes are built, nature can be counted on to restore itself, even if it takes years, according to University of Haifa experts.

Prof. Ido Izhaki, a forest expert in the university’s evolutionary and environmental biology department, Dr. Lea Wittenberg of the geography and environment studies department, and her colleague Dr. Dan Malkinson agree that the horrendous fire will stimulate a rebirth in the lost forests and result in an impressive return of animal biodiversity.

Izhaki, who lives in Afula and is head of the university’s Carmel Research Center, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that the dominant tree species in the forest is the Jerusalem (Aleppo) pine, which “is very suited to fires. When the temperatures rise as with a fire, the pine cones open and shoot out their seeds. Warm temperatures promote germination, and if good – but not excessive – rains follow, in the spring there will be a carpet of sprouts.”

He continued that he and other ecologists oppose planting of young trees, as this is “unnecessary” if all goes well and could otherwise interfere with natural restoration.

“We did a study on a 1989 fire in the Carmel, which destroyed fewer trees than this one but was significant. It took 15 to 20 years for the return of most species. However, to get trees the same size as those that were destroyed, another 10 or 15 years are needed.”

The study showed that not only the pines but also oaks that had been burnt returned, as their roots in most cases were not destroyed but were able to regrow.

However, Izhaki added that in those sections of the Carmel that have been the victims of fire several times in the last three decades, the remnants may not be able to come back, which means that restoration will take longer and the Jewish National Fund could intervene by planting saplings.

Most forest fires are in the autumn, when the trees are dry from the long summer months. Bushes will return without help as well, he said.

“At this point, money should be invested in helping the residents rebuild their homes and restoring the infrastructure and not in replanting,” he insisted.

“We must wait a year to see what happens.”

Instead of wasting resources trying to do faster what nature will do on its own over the next few decades, “resources should go to protecting other areas that are prone to fires, like the Jerusalem area or the southern part of the Carmel,” Dr. Jose Gruenzweig, senior lecturer at The Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Post.

“One needs to establish border areas around the main roads in an area to actively manage the fires that will happen so they cannot jump easily from place to place. Large trees should be removed 50-100 meters from main roads. Low vegetation only should be allowed to grow.

“What happened here, there were high trees on both sides of the road and fire spread from place to place. Nobody can cope with a 20, 30, or 40 meter high flame,” he exclaimed.

There are management techniques to reduce flammable material in forests as well, according to Gruenzweig.

“The South’s Yatir Forest has been correctly pruned throughout the year. No large dead dry branches reach to the ground to become fodder to start a large canopy fire. Pruning, trimming and maybe grazing would reduce flammable material.

Always a question of how many resources are available.”

Dr. Orna Reisman-Berman of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research’s Wyler Department of Dryland Agriculture at Ben-Gurion University in Sde Boker, said that new techniques had been developed over the last decade which had yet to be implemented here.

“Initiated fires – they’re afraid of it in Israel. It is constantly being introduced and weighed but apparently discarded and far from implementation because of negative public opinion,” she said.

Wittenberg, who lives in Haifa, said that foresters disagree and always want to replant, but ecologists see that fires are nature’s way of rebuilding and even improving a forest.

After the sprouts appear, some may even have to be removed so that there are not too many competing in the same soil. While a good amount of rain is beneficial to the sprouts, heavy storms could cause the soil to be eroded and sweep the sprouts away.

She said that when it is safe to go on foot through the forest, her team will do mapping of the areas to find which have been wiped out, which can regrow and which have been hit so many times that they cannot return without help.

“We should establish a center for education in that area to explain to the people what happened and to follow the developments of the natural recovery,” Gruenzweig said.

Malkinson said it’s impossible now to know the state of the forest wildlife. “We have to wait until things calm down.

Surely, the birds flew away and can return. Some animals were incinerated, while others escaped to other spots where they will have to compete for resources with other animals.

As many seeds are disseminated by the fire and wind, the ants will return with a vengeance. Most of them, said Malkinson, survived because their nests are underground.

Some animals that escaped into holes are still alive. But wild boars, porcupines and others could have been killed.

The animals in the Hai Bar reserve were saved without having to let them escape. It must have been traumatic for them, Malkinson said, and this could reduce their fertility. “But I am optimistic about the ability of nature to restore itself.”

University of Haifa Dr.

Amnon Golan, a Zichron Ya’acov resident who teaches and does research on coping with catastrophes, said there is a “big difference between natural disasters and terror or war.”

One of his students studied the reaction to the 1927 earthquake in the area and the 1929 Arab riots. “After the first event, there was a lot of cooperation and brotherhood between the Jews and Arabs, but certainly not after 1929.”

Although there have been land disputes between the Jewish Ein Hod and the Arab Ein Hud, said Golan, “I am sure that this crisis will bring them together and [they will] help each other. There have been so many tragedies in this land, and families are certainly left with great pain, but I am an optimist. As a trained historian, I have seen societies go through great tragedy and bounce back.”

Prof. Manfred Green, a Kiryat Ono resident who is dean of the university’s School of Public Health, said that the pollution from the fire could harm people with asthma, lung and cardiovascular disease.