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Mt. Carmel Fire - December 2010

The December 2010 fire on Mt. Carmel tragically took 43 lives, most prison guard cadets whose bus was trapped by flames as they made their way toward Damon Prison in an effort to evacuate inmates ahead of the advancing blaze. Several years of drought and dense vegetation of pines, scrub oaks and various maquis (or chapparal as we call it here in California) varieties, combined with high winds (similar to California's santana winds that come in the fall) and steep topography to create the massive inferno.

Jutting out into the sea, the Carmel breaks Israel's nearly straight coastline, benefiting from the coastal fog and additional rainfall due to its elevation. Its forests and heights gave it a regal quality to the Biblical authors, useful for describing the head of a royal lover or the coming Babylonian juggernaut.

The dense vegetation there was referenced by Isaiah as the "splendor of Carmel" - a luxurious landcover in a country sitting on the edge of the desert. Indeed, when God describes the restoration of Israel, it is Carmel's splendor that will be bestowed on the barren wilderness. Carmel's loss of its splendor was a metaphor for desperate times in the land.

Given Israel's repeated attraction to Canaanite Baal worship, with its emphasis on controlling the rains and fertility, it's not surprising Elijah chose Carmel to challenge Jezebel's prophets of Baal. The traditional site of that contest where Elijah called down fire from heaven is to the east of the present-day forest fire, but it's modern Arabic name, Muhraqa, is still relevant - "the place of burning."

This Google Earth flight begins in Haifa Bay and flies across the city and it's outlying communities that were threatened if the fire had spread farther north. It then spirals across the burn area, although the current Google Earth imagery pre-dates the fire - you'll see the landscape as it was. The boundaries of the burn area are approximate and were made by overlaying a low-resolution color-infrared image acquired when the fire was mostly contained and tracing in the boundaries you see. The satellite image appears to be copyrighted, so I won't post it - you can view it here. Note - the satellite image is oriented north-up. My snapshot, below, from Google Earth is oriented east-up.

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The area shown in red was nearly completely burned. The green areas were spared, by and large, from the fire. In the flight, only the red and green boundaries show. The burn area is primarily wildlands with no Biblical connection of which I am aware.

The image, above, shows the setting on the western slopes of Carmel where they meet the Plain of Dor. Dor was an important Caananite seaport and its king was one of 31 defeated by Joshua, although the Israelites did not successfully dislodge the Caananites of Dor during the conquest. Later, one of Solomon's son-in-laws (with 700 wives, who wasn't Solomon's son-in-law?) lived here. Nearby Atlit was the first place many crusaders set foot in the land during the Middle Ages - it was also the last holdout abandoned by them in the long war with Islam.

Haifa is draped across the northwest tip of Carmel. Its industrial port sits where the Kishon River meets the Mediterranean. Follow the Kishon southwestward through the narrow pass separating the hills of Lower Galilee from the Carmel Ridge until you reach Jokneam, the city protecting one of the three major passes across Carmel. Its king was one of those defeated by Joshua. Above Jokneam is Muhraqa, the traditional site of Elijah's defeat of the prophets of Baal. Somewhere nearby, on the banks of the Kishon, he had 400 of Jezebel's false prophets put to death.

On the immediate edge of the burned area is the Damon Prison. It was here the busload of cadets were headed to evacuate prisoners when they became trapped by the flames. It appears as though firefighters successfully stopped the fire short of the prison walls.

Given the vegetation associations in this region and the problem of insufficient rainfall, it's surprising such forest fires are not mentioned in the long Biblical narrative. In the Gospels, we're told of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee that were likely the result of the type of winds that fanned the Carmel fire. In David's battle with Absalom in the Gilead region, we're told "the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword" - perhaps a reference to fires set by the two armies as part of their battle plan. Given the 2,000 or so years of history the Bible chronicles here, big fires had to have occurred many, many times.

If you haven't done so yet, download the Google Earth plug-in. If you're new to Google Earth, check the Flying Tips & Tricks page.

Note: Sometimes the place names do not display on the flight. The problem is intermittent and I have not yet solved it. If you push the pause button, the place-name labels will then display. Also, I recommend the use of Internet Explorer as your browser. Flights are not viewable with Firefox.