JERUSALEM — Whenever this war with Hezbollah ends and the people of northern Israel finally return to their homes, they’ll be going back to more than empty streets, freshly dug gravesites and a beefed-up military presence.
They also will be coming home to a radically altered physical landscape.
Devastated by fires sparked by Katyusha rockets, northern Israel has seen its forests obliterated, its grazing lands laid waste and its wildlife annihilated over the past four weeks.
The country may never look the same, experts say.
“We have very serious damage,” said Moshon Gabay, spokesman for the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. “In previous wars we did not suffer damage like this. Every Katyusha that falls starts a fire.”
The green hills of the Galilee have turned orange and black, smoldering with the remains of forest fires. The sky, usually bright blue this time of year, is shrouded in thick gray smoke. The large animals and many birds that live in the area have taken flight, and countless numbers of smaller and slower animals have been killed in raging fires that have turned verdant hills to ash.
So far, officials say, more than 7,000 acres of undeveloped land have been destroyed, including about 2,500 acres of woodlands encompassing roughly 700,000 trees. Some of those trees were as old as the State of Israel.
“It’s an ecological catastrophe. Animals are dying. Trees are getting burned,” said Orit Hadad, an official with the Jewish National Fund in Israel, where it is known as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael. “Even if every tree is replanted, to bring these forests back to the state they were in will take 50 to 60 years.”
That means that most of the survivors of this war will not live to see the landscape return to its prewar state.
Among the hardest-hit areas have been the Naftali forest range near Kiryat Shmona, where more than three-quarters of the forest was obliterated, and the Birya Forest in the Western Galilee, near Safed, where more than 600 acres have burned.
Less is known about how the animals that live in this largely rural area have fared. Firefighters have found the remains of many slow-moving animals, such as snakes and turtles, in burned areas. Larger animals that managed to escape probably will suffer from loss of food sources and a sharp reduction in available grazing lands, experts said.
“We’re very aware of this problem of disruption of the food chain, even if there is not much we can do,” said Michael Weinberger, a JNF forest supervisor in the Central Galilee and Golan Heights.
Tourists who return to this area after the war may be startled to find Israel’s most popular hiking spots, where waterfalls pour over lush ridges, virtually unrecognizable.
On Tuesday, the fires from Katyushas reached Mt. Meron, already scorched, and nearby Nahal Amud, a strikingly beautiful canyon that runs from the Upper Galilee to the Kinneret Lake and is replete with waterfalls, blooming plant life and animals ranging from gazelles to wild boars.
There is little that Israel’s Nature Protection Authority, which maintains the area, can do for these lands at risk. Even after the war ends the authority will not replant, since the areas are protected reserves or natural areas where the rule of thumb is to let nature take its course.
Even if officials tried, there would be no way to restore the variety of plant life, wildlife and woodlands native to the area.
“It all depends on the rain that will fall,” Gabay said. “We let these areas repopulate naturally.”
The JNF says it will try to replant as many trees as possible after the fighting is over. Each acre will cost an estimated $5,500 for the first two years to resoil, replant and treat, officials said.
For now, the focus is on putting out the fires.
Because most firefighters in northern Israel are busy trying to extinguish blazes sparked by the Katyusha rockets in urban areas where human lives are at stake, the fight against forest fires has been conducted mostly from the air.
Israel’s Interior Ministry has run out of money to pay for the planes, so the JNF is picking up the tab with an emergency fund for which it has yet to raise money.
“We are all working 12- to 16-hour days — crews on fire trucks and on the ground,” said Paul Ginsburg, JNF’s head forester for Israel’s northern region. “Forests that have taken 50 years to grow, that saw two generations of foresters, are burning. Everything we do is under the threat of Katyusha attacks. The work is stressful and heartbreaking.”
Many more environmental threats loom, experts say. In Haifa, petrochemical plants and refineries vulnerable to Katyusha rockets pose a serious danger to area residents. If such a site is hit, it could send toxic chemicals that would contaminate the entire city.
“The concern is very problematic from an ecological point of view,” said Ronit Fischer, director of the Haifa branch of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel. “If something falls there, it will be a very complicated disaster.”
The damage to Israel’s environment has not been limited to the North.
In the area around the Gaza Strip, along Israel’s southern coast, more than 15,000 trees have been destroyed as a result of Palestinian Kassam rocket attacks, according to the JNF. Additionally, the Israeli army has had to alter the natural landscape in many places to accommodate new military bases, lookouts or patrol roads.
The heaviest damage from the war has been where Hezbollah missile crews are aiming their rockets: the Galilee, a mountainous area covered by fir and pine trees, abundant grazing lands and bountiful wildlife. Some Katyushas have fallen in the Golan Heights, but the damage there is small by comparison, and experts say the burned grasslands there should be able to recover by next year.
Shalom Blayer, CEO of the Golan Heights Winery, said the vineyards of northern Israel have been spared so far, though some vineyards abutting the Lebanon border have been declared no-go zones by the military.
Underscoring the vulnerable state of agriculture-based businesses in northern Israel, he said, “This is what I know for now; I can’t tell you what will be five minutes from now.”
In the distance, another air-raid siren roared to life.