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The Fire in Israel

I’m writing this in a back room at my in-laws’ apartment in Jerusalem. It’s Shabbat, but I felt it was important to get you some details about the massive forest fire that is still raging through the Carmel forest in northern Israel. (Negligence, not arson, is suspected.) It’s no exaggeration to describe what’s happening here as a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Wildfires are by no means unknown in Israel, but this is by far the worst in the country’s history.

The weather has been unseasonably warm and dry of late — we just had the hottest November in sixty years, winter shows no sign of approaching, and my kids are still in T-shirts and shorts. Yesterday (Thursday), sometime around midday, a fire broke out, apparently in an illegal landfill near the Druse village of Usifiya. Gusty winds and the extreme dryness combined to cause the fire to build and spread at shocking speed. It swept towards Haifa, prompting mass evacuations that as of this moment have affected about 17,000 people.

There is a prison called Damon in the Carmel hills near Haifa that houses both Palestinian and Israeli prisoners. The Prisons Service sent a busload of guards — most of them trainees, and a good proportion of them women — toward Damon to assist in the evacuation of the prison. Along the way, a tree collapsed in the path of the bus, trapping it directly in the path of the oncoming blaze. The bus was swiftly engulfed in flames and 36 people aboard were killed, as well as six rescuers (fire-fighters, policemen, and a 16-year-old boy who rushed in to assist). The dead were mostly Jews, but some were Druse; most of the funerals took place at noon today. (The prisoners at Damon were safely evacuated.) Two police officers are still missing.

The head of the Haifa Police Department, Deputy Commander Ahuva Tomer, was driving behind the bus. When she saw the flames begin to consume it, she jumped out of her car and rushed towards it in an attempt to pull people off. She was herself critically injured and is now clinging to life at Carmel Hospital in Haifa.

The scale of the fire quickly overwhelmed Israel’s capacity to fight it, leading Netanyahu to take the unusual step of requesting international help while continuing to pour what resources were available towards the area. As Claire noted earlier today, Turkey set aside its recent animus towards Israel and immediately offered to send two fire-fighting aircraft, an offer that was gratefully accepted. “I greatly appreciate this,” said Netanyahu, promising, “We’ll find a way to show how much.” Netanyahu and Erdogan spoke by phone about the crisis, the first time they have spoken since Netanyahu took office as Prime Minister.

Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus also quickly responded with planes, personnel and equipment. More help is continuing to arrive from Spain, France, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Britain, Egypt, Jordan, Romania and Russia. Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, sent his condolences to the Israeli people on behalf of the Palestinians. (This might sound insignificant, but I for one appreciate it.) President Obama has also sent condolences and assured Israel that American help is on its way: as he put it, “that’s what friends do for each other.” The Israeli Air Force is coordinating the international aerial effort to douse the fire.

The savagery and power of the fire has been and continues to be terrifying, with quickly moving flames leaping up to forty meters in the air. Residents across the north are being advised to keep their windows closed to keep the smoke out. Beit Oren, a kibbutz in the Carmel hills, has been devastated and possibly destroyed (its population was evacuated before the wildfire reached its buildings). The University of Haifa was evacuated. At least 5,000 acres of pine trees in the gorgeous Carmel Forest are now ashes or still aflame. Routes Two and Four to the affected area have been closed, effectively cutting the region off from the rest of the country. Buses are on standby for further evacuations.

This terrible event has made for a sobering Chanukah for us here in Israel. As Aluf Benn put it in Haaretz, “The enormous blaze that broke out on the Carmel will be remembered as the Yom Kippur War of the Fire and Rescue Service, who were not prepared to counter a disaster of such magnitude…it turned out that Israel is not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front.” It’s a dark day here. Netanyahu has rightly praised the “divine heroism” of the many people who have put themselves in grave danger to fight this fire, but Benn is right. This is the worst kind of wake-up call.

It’s 10:30 pm now and we have to get the kids home. Be safe, all of you, wherever you are.