Just days after the fires that destroyed over 12,000 acres of forest, 100 homes and countless trees were extinguished on Monday, Israelis are now beginning to take stock of the damage and look to the future.
“Other than total shock and disappointment, it’s a disaster that hit the whole country,” said Marcie Lang, the Israel representative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in its Partnership 2000 city, Karmiel. “I don’t think it depends on where you live.”
The fires began last week on the Carmel Ridge near Haifa in northern Israel and made international headlines when a bus filled with Prison Service cadets veered into the flames after a fallen tree blocked its path, killing 36 people. National distress only heightened on Monday when Ahuva Tomer, the first female commander of the Haifa police force, died after sustaining severe burns.
While Americans are fairly used to news of forest fires — Lang cited the wild blazes that strike California — the Carmel fire was the largest of its kind in Israel’s history, burning an area that many associate with great memories.
“Everyone knows someone who lives in the area. We all have memories of taking walks in Haifa,” said Lang. “I don’t think there’s one person [in Israel] who’s never been to the hills of Haifa or enjoyed having an afternoon picnic there. It’s devastating that it’s not there anymore.”
Upon news of the blaze, aid and equipment was sent into Israel from the United States, Egypt, Jordan and countries in Europe and Asia. While all available firefighters in Israel were sent to fight the fire, it was apparent that the country wasn’t quite prepared to handle such a disaster.
“We were simply caught with our pants down with insufficient resources,” said Jeff Shames, a former Pittsburgher who now lives in Rehovot in central Israel. So while the fire had an immediate “traumatic impact on the population, especially due to the accident with the bus,” said Shames, “it’ll have a huge impact on people’s sense of vulnerability.”
Calling from Jerusalem, Rabbi Danny Schiff, also formerly of Pittsburgh, agreed that long-term effects of the fire may be most damaging.
“Clearly our forces are tremendously prepared for war or terrorism, but the question is are we ready to take care of the public in these areas,” said Schiff. “It could be that any country in this position would need to seek outside assistance, but it’s also obvious that our fire forces were dramatically depleted and we didn’t have even the basic equipment that would have begun to take care of the problem.”
Noting the current mood of the country, Schiff said, “There are tremendous questions being asked now about national infrastructure in emergency circumstances.”
In a report issued by Reuters, damages from the fire were estimated at about $550 million. Partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America have begun collecting donations to aid those affected by the fire.
Those funds will not only help immediate damage in the area, but also the disaster’s impact on the families most devastatingly affected. At press time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh alone had raised about $22,000.
“It’s pretty amazing that people can come together so quickly,” said the Federation’s Senior Vice President of Financial Resource Development Brian Eglash. “We’re proud that we are able to do that and be there for Israel. They are our brothers and sisters, and we have to do the right thing.”
On the other hand, “the more support Israel gets monetarily, the more helpful that is. But at the same time, Israel is not a poor country anymore,” said Schiff. “In reality, the government needs to take care of these problems internally.”
As the embers of the fire cool, Israelis seem confident in Israel’s (and the international community’s) dedication to saving lives.
“While it’s going on, people pull themselves together to help,” said Shames. “We’ll ask the difficult questions later.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.)