On Dec. 2, 2010, a fire broke out on Mount Carmel in northern Israel that would become the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. The blaze took 44 lives and destroyed more than 12,000 acres of forest.
Perhaps less discussed: how it could have been different.
“We woke up to a new reality,” said Ariel Kotler, a Jerusalem–based development officer at the Jewish National Fund. “And the reality is that we’re not prepared.”
Kotler was part of a JNF team that hosted Shachar Tsairy, chief of fire and rescue services in the Tiberias region, on a recent three-day visit to the Bay Area. The short trip aimed to raise awareness and funds for Israeli firefighters through the JNF’s “Friends of Israel Firefighters” (FIF) initiative.
With the fire’s one-year anniversary, JNF representatives hope Israelis and American Jews will take the opportunity to talk about how to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again. Israel’s fire department has been woefully underfunded for decades, they say, a situation highlighted by the Carmel tragedy.
Tsairy, 42, has been a firefighter for 18 years — he joined after serving in the Israel Defense Forces during the Second Lebanon War — and is one of the youngest fire chiefs in Israel. His department, based in Tiberias in the Lower Galilee, is responsible for about 1,000 square miles, with a population of about 100,000.
“In all that area, we have four stations and 55 firefighters,” Tsairy said in an interview. A dozen usually are on call at any given moment, he said. Compounding the situation is outdated equipment, including vehicles and supplies dating to the 1970s.
“There are 80,000 [fire and rescue] calls annually, on average, in the State of Israel. Something like 85 percent of forest fires are arson,” said Kotler. “And then you go and visit a fire station like Shachar’s, and they have fire trucks from 1977. … These firefighters are constantly having to do the maximum with the minimum.”
Israeli fire and rescue commissioner Shahar Ayalon told the Jerusalem Post on Nov. 29 that Israel’s emergency services have an average response time of 14 minutes. Service teams with considerably faster response times include those in the United States (four to five minutes) and many European countries (seven to eight minutes), according to the Post.
In addition to battling fires, Israel’s firefighters respond routinely to car accidents and other medical emergencies, said Aaron Parker, JNF’s regional director for Northern California and the Pacifiec Northwest.
Since establishing FIF — an initiative founded partially in memory of 16-year-old fire scout Elad Riven, who was killed in the Carmel blaze — JNF has been involved in the construction of several new fire stations around Israel and the purchase of 120 fire trucks (the program raises about 50 percent of the cost and the Israeli government matches it). FIF also has helped pay for jumpsuits, helmets and other lifesaving equipment, said Parker.
Visiting the Bay Area was especially meaningful, he said, because of the region’s relationship with northern Israel. (Haifa, which was heavily affected by the fire, enjoys sister-city status with San Francisco.) Stops on the tour included a meeting with Norcal Shomrim, the Jewish law enforcement society; a guest spot on San Francisco’s KGO radio with John Rothmann; and a visit with Oakland firefighters.
The local response was overwhelmingly positive, said Kotler, despite the fact that emergency services are off most Americans’ radars when it comes to news about Israel.
“We sometimes say Israel has two sons, the loved son and the forgotten son,” said Kotler. “The [Israel Defense Forces] is the loved son, and we need it to be strong. … At the same time, the fire department has been neglected for many years.
“It’s time to for other communities to get involved and make a difference. And that’s what we’re seeing. It’s happening all over the world, and right here in San Francisco.”
It’s long overdue, said Kotler. “It’s not a question of if there will be another fire,” he said. “It’s a question of when.”
For information or to donate to FIF, visit www.tinyurl.com/2a65buj or email Aaron Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org.