First Person: 'Holy cow! There’s a massive fire on the hill!’

"We watched a seemingly endless number of fire engines and other first response vehicles racing up the highway toward Haifa with their sirens wailing."

November 27, 2016 06:03
4 minute read.
haifa fire

Fires in Haifa, November 24, 2016. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

My good friend Amy sometimes sends me audio messages. Last Tuesday, we’d been sending messages back and forth about the impromptu Thanksgiving dinner she’d offered to host at her home in Zichron Yaakov, when suddenly, I heard her gasp.

“Holy cow! There’s a massive fire on the hill!” The photos she sent were scary, and when I looked out my kitchen window, I could see a smoky haze blotting out parts of the town in the distance. The winds were unusually strong, and I worried about the effect it was having on the firefighters’ ability to gain control of the fire.

As they slowly managed to contain and put out the fire, information was forwarded to our class parents’ WhatsApp group about items that were needed by local families who had lost their homes. My 12-year-old son (who somehow seems to grow a few centimeters every day) and I discussed going through his closets to donate clothing that no longer fits.
Wild fires wreak havoc across Israel

The Yokne’am-based company where I work was unusually quiet on Thursday – many of my colleagues had left sometime in the morning, either because their children’s kindergartens and schools were being evacuated or because their neighborhoods were. Others didn’t come in at all.

I queried one friend to find out if he was around, but as it turned out, he was one of the employees who had stayed home. He told me that during the previous night, flames had been 300-500 meters away from his home and he was worried about making the hour-long commute to the office.

I couldn’t say I blamed him, especially when another colleague living in the same community abruptly left the office after hearing that the fires were encroaching again.

Through our third-floor picture windows overlooking the Tishbi junction and the Jezreel Valley, we watched a seemingly endless number of fire engines and other first response vehicles racing up the highway toward Haifa with their sirens wailing.

In the sky, we saw small, yellow firefighting planes returning to refill their tanks somewhere in the area before flying back to fight the fires.

For some reason, the sirens reminded me of the second intifada when I worked in Netanya – whenever we’d hear one siren, we’d pause. If we heard another one (or more), it usually signified that there’d been a terrorist attack. I’m not sure why, but the sirens I heard on Thursday triggered those old memories, adding to the apprehension I was already feeling.

Those of us who were still in the office tried to work. But honestly? I wasn’t really getting anything done. The news reports about what was happening in Haifa were terrifying, and every time I checked the news, I heard that more fires were burning – including several that were relatively close to Karkur, where we’ve lived since the late ’90s.

When my colleague received a text announcing that a fire had ignited at kibbutz Gan Shmuel – just 10 minutes from where we both lived – I decided to call it a day. It was shortly after 2:30 p.m., and I was afraid that fires would close the roads I needed to get home. I put my laptop in my bag, let my boss know that I was leaving and stepped outside. Turning toward the parking lot, I was shocked to see the sky ahead of me filled with plumes of heavy smoke emanating from behind the hill on which Yokne’am sits. I snapped a quick photo before jumping into my car.

My drive down Route 6 led me past – and through – even more smoke. While I couldn’t see any flames, it seemed that every curve in the road revealed a new source of smoke; traffic was heavy in both directions. I’d been texting with Amy before I left the office, and she was relieved when I let her know that I’d made it home safely.

While I was safe (despite the lingering smell of smoke that hung in the air), my company switched into emergency mode. Managers created team WhatsApp groups and asked each of us to check in (at least one Haifa-based team member had been evacuated). Human resources let all employees know that no matter what we needed, help would be available.

Apparently, some of my colleagues have suffered property damage, but I don’t know the details. And, as I write this, I can’t stop thinking about a former colleague whose community lost more than 10 homes last night. He was away for the weekend, and won’t know until after the dust settles late Saturday night whether or not he and his family still have their home.

If there is any comfort to be found, it is in the examples set by the firefighters who risked their lives to save others, and the people who opened their homes and hearts to take in those who couldn’t return home. They are the light that beats back the darkness, giving me hope that often seems elusive at times like these.

The writer is a hi-tech technical writer. She lives with her family in Karkur.

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