The Israeli Fire: My Story

Editor’s note:  The following is Roy Kozer’s account of the recent fire in Israel.  Roy is a resident of Kibbutz Hotrim in northern Israel.  He holds an MA in environmental engineering and is a member of Shinui Yarok (Green Change), an Israeli environmental initiative.  To see Roy’s GTJ interview, click here or go to the Mitzvah Maker section.

Narrative translated from Hebrew by GTJ staff member Noa Levanon.

The fire began on a Thursday. We saw it from our house, at Kibbutz Hotrim, but we didn’t really pay attention because there had been fires on the Carmel before. We continued with our planned activities; my wife, daughter and I drove to visit my parents in central Israel. Even as we drove down, I had a strong feeling that I need to stay and help, but I ignored it because we had a lot of things to get done that day.

As the day progressed, we heard more and more accounts that the fire was getting worse. At seven o’clock, I decided I had to go back up north.  I didn’t know how I could help and if they’d even let me pass the road blocks. I just got in the car and drove.  As I’d suspected, most of the roads were closed off but somehow I made it back to Kibbutz Hotrim, in the foothills of the Carmel.  The kibbutz was almost entirely abandoned, with only a few men standing at the entrance gate.  I stopped by our house to get some field gear and went back to the gate. Shortly afterward, we took off on two Deutz Magirus fire trucks belonging to the kibbutz. These were fifty-year-old fire trucks that barely functioned. They were almost completely devoid of gear – no radio and only three protective masks. Nonetheless, we drove up to Kibbutz Beit Oren in the Carmel (the area near the kibbutz was one of the hardest hit). On our way, we saw one of my favorite hiking areas going up in flames.  We passed by the bus that had caught on fire, with the bodies of the 40 dead prison wardens.  It was horrific and saddening.

When we got to Beit Oren, we were immediately surrounded by smoke and flames.  Luckily, the kibbutz was in surprisingly good shape – the south row of homes had burned down, but the rest of the kibbutz was saved.  That entire night, we divided our time between two fire sites adjacent to the kibbutz.  One of these fires, on the east, was spreading toward the kibbutz’s gas mains, which was obviously extremely dangerous.  We were only aided by a handful of area residents, who tried to help us using their garden hoses. Professional firefighters came to replace us at dawn, so we drove back to the kibbutz. On the way down, we ran out of gas and were rescued by a gas supply truck.

When I got back to the kibbutz’s main gate, two volunteers from the Shomer Hahadash organization asked me to give them a ride to a nearby community.  I had no choice but to take them there.  Once I dropped them off, I returned to Beit Oren to help, intending to go to my parents’ house later.  As I was leaving the kibbutz, I saw a brush fire spreading next to a nearby gas station.  I stopped and was quickly integrated into rescue efforts.  At a certain point, the fire got too close to the gas station and our first priority was to focus on that area. At that point, we were joined by a team of Israeli firefighters and a team of Bulgarian firefighters who had flown over to help the rescue efforts.  Together, we managed to douse the flames.

Because it was late, I decided to just spend Shabbat in the area, at Kibbutz Nir Etzion. A few men had remained behind on the kibbuzt and we prayed Maariv together.  We made a list to take turns as sentries. I was able to sleep for two hours before the sentries woke everyone to let us know the fire was getting closer. We spent all night keeping the fire at bay, away from the homes.  In between firefighting shifts, the dairy farmers went to milk the cows that remained on the kibbutz.  Shortly after midnight, the trees at the Yemin Orde boarding school, located across from Nir Etzion, caught on fire. And just a bit later, the neighboring homes caught on fire as well. We could feel the heat from where we were.  Because it was nighttime, the firefighting planes could not be deployed. All we could do was hope and pray that the fire wouldn’t make it to the kibbutz before dawn.  Luckily, the fire stayed away.  In the morning we were able to head up to Yemin Orde and help fight the fire that was still raging there.  We only gained control of the flames in the early evening.

I spent two and a half days with almost no sleep because of my presence in several hotspots. Physically, it took me very little time to revive.  Unfortunately, it will take the Carmel much longer to recover and, in the meantime, hundreds – including students from Yemin Orde – have nowhere to live.