One night a couple years ago, I was riding a bus on the Haifa-Tel Aviv freeway, when I encountered one of the most awe-inspiring things I've ever seen. Looking out the window towards the Carmel mountain range, I saw an entire hill being overrun by a forest fire. The flame was several hundred meters across, and almost as tall as it was wide. No lives were lost, and I could not find even a mention of it in the news the next day.
As I write this, a much larger fire is burning in almost exactly the same place. Already 40 lives have been lost, and thousands of people evacuated from their homes.
Along with my shock at the number of casualties, and concern over what may happen in the next few days, the following thoughts have crossed my mind.
1) The first rain in Israel normally falls a short time after Sukkot. Typically, by December, several heavy rainstorms have occurred. But so far this winter, just two small drizzles have occurred. Effectively, there has been no rain since March or April. As the sources suggest, the chief rabbinate has declared two fast days in the last couple weeks, and a special prayer for rain has been added to "Shomea Tefila" of each weekday shemoneh esreh.
There is an impulse nowadays to say that we don't need rain like we did in the past. After all, few people nowadays are farmers, and several large desalination plants are now operating. It's true that a drought will not cause widespread starvation like it once would have. But this fire is a good example of how the lack of rainfall can have consequences that are not easily forseen. A significant rainfall in the days before the fire would have kept it from spreading so fast (or at all). Nobody praying for rain had the possibility of forest fires in mind, yet this fire has killed more Israelis than any other single event in a number of years.
2) For many decades Jews have planted trees throughout Israel. Some even say the "green line" is so called because it separates green Israel from its non-green neighbors. Arabs - opponents of Zionism and people whose culture formed in the desert - have understandably opposed this greening of the land. Israel's landscape is susceptible to forest fires, but a high proportion of fires in recent years have been attributed to arson by those with "nationalist" motivations. If this is another such case, then it may effectively be the worst terrorist attack to occur in many years.
3) At the Chanukah party I was at tonight, the planned music was canceled. The dvar torah was about how fire is both a constructive force, enabling civilization to arise, and a destructive one. Tonight and tomorrow, let us pray that our constructive forces outweigh the forces of destruction, and that the damage caused by this fire be limited.