Image: Scorched area of forest
Sebastian Scheiner  /  AP
Twenty square miles of Israel's Carmel forest, including this section, were destroyed by fire over four days last week.
By
updated 12/9/2010 4:44:10 PM ET 2010-12-09T21:44:10

For more than a century, planting trees in this mostly desert land has been an act of almost spiritual importance, starting with those who helped create the state of Israel.

So, the emotional response to the worst wildfire in the country's history, which tore through one of its few natural forests over the weekend and killed 42 people, has been to seek to replant — and donations are pouring in from around the world.

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But forestry experts caution that the best road to recovery for the Carmel forest may be to do nothing and let nature take its course — an idea that is running into resistance.

The four-day forest fire that reached the outskirts of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, is seen as a calamity in Israel, where only 7 percent of the land is wooded. The Carmel forest makes up 5 percent of that wooded land.

The inferno burned down 5 million trees and about a third of the nature reserve, where 100-foot oak, pine and cypress trees once stood. Blackened, barren hilltops are all that remain, and charred tree stumps stick out of the ground like gravestones.

Russell Robinson, the head of the Jewish National Fund, a world Jewish group devoted to planting and maintaining forests in Israel, has vowed to replant the trees. His organization quickly raised upward of $1 million out of the $10 million it hopes to generate in the coming year to fund a range of restoration and fire prevention measures.

"I see the spirit of the people who are going to be a part of rebuilding it tomorrow," Robinson said. "This land will turn back from black to green."

For generations, the JNF has preached the planting of trees as an ultimate act of Zionism. Known for its blue-and-white collection boxes and fundraising campaigns, the JNF has planted 240 million trees across Israel.

Researcher Dan Melkinson of Haifa University warned, however, that the extent of the fire — which caused almost twice the combined damage of all previous Carmel fires over the past 30 years — required a patient approach to study which areas could recover naturally and which needed replanting.

"We propose to let the ecosystem regenerate itself in the coming year without any intervention. Any reforestation entails moving into the area with heavy machinery, and that destroys the flora," he said. "The approach is not to go out and bring back the green, but to observe the ground and consider where to plant anew and where not."

The debate boils down to the very essence of trees in the Holy Land. The typical Israeli forested landscape is made up of planted, planned lines of pine trees. And for generations, the JNF forests have been an integral part of Israel's nation building.

Natural forests like the Carmel, on the other hand, with wildlife and diverse ecosystems, are rare.

Those who care for the two distinct types of forest have different goals, explained Omri Gal, a spokesman for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which administers the Carmel area.

"The JNF forests are for the enjoyment and recreation of people. Our goal is to preserve nature," Gal said. "The public wants to help after something like this. They feel that by planting a tree where another was burned they are helping, but this is not always true."

Researchers note that forest fires are not necessarily all bad. Low temperature blazes can actually enhance the soil with nutrients from within the old trees and create natural recycling for greater biodiversity. Particularly with pine trees, where seeds are trapped in cones and explode when exposed to heat, the potential for renewal is great.

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Unfortunately, Gal said, the country was not blessed with these "good fires" that normally result from bolts of lightning during summer storms. Arson, negligence and other human factors account for almost all of Israel's fires.

Israel's minister of environmental protection will oversee the recovery efforts, heading a task force made up of experts from the government, agencies and nature groups. The ministry's spokesman, Yekutiel Zafari, said all were in agreement that for the first year, "nature must take its course."

But Omri Bonneh, director of the JNF's northern region, said that approach takes many years. He pointed to the slow recovery of planted forests in northern Israel that were damaged by Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon during a monthlong war in 2006.

The first stage of rehabilitation of those forests — using a mixture of the two approaches — has only now been completed and a full recovery will take decades, he said.

He said a hands-off approach could be effective but only to a degree.

"This is the mother of all fires," he said. "When it comes to planted forests, we will have to get involved in planting again."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Devastating forest fire in Israel

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  1. An Israeli police officer comforts her colleague during the funeral of Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, on Monday, Dec. 6. Tomer, Israel's top policewoman, clung to life for four days after her patrol car was trapped in a burning forest, died Monday of her wounds. (Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Remains of buildings stand after a massive wildfire in northern Israel on Tuesday, Dec. 7. The fire broke out Thursday and burned a 20-square-mile area in the Carmel forest, a popular nature spot on Haifa's outskirts. The blaze was brought under control late Sunday and damages overall have been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Although the wildfire was small by international standards, it was considered a calamity in Israel, where only 7 percent of the land is wooded. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. US Evergreen 747 supertanker sprays a burning area in Ein Hod in the Carmel Forest in the outskirts of Haifa on Dec. 5, as dozens of firefighting planes from around the world battled the blaze. (Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An Israeli firefighter attempts to extinguish a blaze in the youth village (boarding school) of Yemin Orde, near the northern city of Haifa, Israel, Dec. 5. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A man inspects the remains of a burnt house in the village of Ein Hod, outside Haifa, Israel, on Dec. 5. (Abir Sultan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Israeli police officers mourn during the funeral of their comrade Yitzhak Melina in Haifa Dec. 5. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government faced calls for consequences on Sunday over a huge four-day-old forest fire that has killed 41 people, including Melina, and been called the worst in Israel's history. (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. In this photo taken on Saturday, Dec. 4, smoke rises from a forest fire outside Haifa, Israel. (Dana Friedlander / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Locals watch a firefighting plane spray fire extinguishing material over the wildfire on Dec. 4, in Ein Hod, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Israeli residents look at the slope of the burning hill on the edge of Tirat Ha Carmel near the northern city of Haifa on Dec. 3, 2010. Around 40 people are believed to have been killed in the devastating forest fire burning. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Israeli firefighters put out the massive forest fire that broke out Thursday in the Tirat HaCarmel in the north of Israel, Dec. 3. Firefighting aircraft from four countries flew into Israel on Friday to help battle the fire close to the northern city of Haifa. (Baz Ratner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The burnt interior of a home in kibbutz Beit Oren, with the remains of furniture frames, destroyed in a wildfire in northern Israel is seen Friday, Dec. 3, 2010. Crews and equipment from around the world began arriving on Friday to help Israel's worst fire ever. The inferno, which also displaced thousands, is still raging through forests in northern Israel and on the outskirts of the country's third largest city, Haifa. (Dan Balilty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Firefighters rest on the road at sunrise after participating overnight in the efforts to gain control over a massive wildfire, still raging near by, in Tirat Hacarmel, northern Israel, Dec. 3. (Tsafrir Abayov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The bodies of victims from a bus that was trapped in a forest fire that broke out in the Carmel Forest, are seen on the road near the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Avishag Shar-yashuv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Israeli woman holds the keys of her house in her left hand while taking a photo of a raging forest fire in the Carmel mountain from a residential house in the hills above the coastal Israeli city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. An Israeli firefighter plane drops fire retardant on the forest fire in the Carmel Forest, near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Roy El / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A fire-fighting plane flies over a forest fire that broke out in the kibbutz of Beit Oren in the north of Israel, Dec. 2. (Nir Elias / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A burnt-out bus is seen near kibbutz Beit Oren, Dec. 2. The bus burst into flames as it raced to an Israeli prison during a massive forest fire Thursday, killing dozens of prison guards participating in the rescue mission, officials said, in one of the deadliest accidents in the nation's history. (Yaron Kaminsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Fire rages out of control in the Carmel Forest near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (David Buimovitch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. An Israeli firefighter runs from raging fire in Beit Oren, Carmel Forest, near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (David Buimovitch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man stands beside his car as he looks at the forest fire in the Kibbutz of Beit Oren, northern Israel, Dec. 2. (Nir Elias / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Israeli paramedics evacuate an injured policewoman from the scene of a forest fire that broke out near kibbutz Beit Oren in the north of Israel Dec. 2. (Stringer/israel / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Israeli firefighters work at the site where fire raged out of control in the Carmel Forest near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A fire that broke out in the Carmel Forest near the northern Israeli city of Haifa is seen in this aerial view Dec. 2. (Stringer/israel / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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