Amity from the ashes: Fighting Israel's fire in four languages

Putting politics aside, firefighters from across the ocean and beyond the wall battled the blazes in some of the most severe fires that ever hit the country.

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December 2, 2016 21:02
Israel wildfire

A firefighter drinks water as a wildfire burns in Haifa on Thursday last week. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The Givat Mordechai fire station in southwest Jerusalem took on an international tone the last weekend of November as firefighters from Cyprus, the United States and the Palestinian Authority came at the request of the Israeli government to help battle blazes that engulfed the country last week.

DESPITE THE difficult situation, language differences and perhaps also political differences, firefighters were at ease in the fire station in the week following the fires; Cypriot firefighters were seen snapping selfies and scooping ice cream, while US firefighters watched TV with their Israeli counterparts as the smoldering Jerusalem hill fires had largely settled by Monday.

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From the US came 40 veteran firefighters, 69 firefighters from Cyprus, and 40 firefighters and eight fire trucks were sent by the Palestinian Authority.

The firefighters worked hand-in-hand with their Israeli counterparts to battle some of the country’s most devastating fires. Here are snapshots of a few of the many firefighters who gave the country a hand in its time of need.

The Cypriot

Nathaniel Benjamin Andreou, 35, a firefighter for the Cyprus Forestry Department, chose his line of work out of a love for his country’s scenery. After flying to Israel on a C130 military plane Andreou was greeted with a nearly identical terrain. “The vegetation and the topography in the area [west of Jerusalem] that we worked on Friday night is very similar to Cyprus,” said Andreou, “I could recognize most of the plants around me. The smell is even the same because it is the same kind of vegetation.”



Nathaniel Benjamin Andreou from the Cyprus wildfire department (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Andreou left his slightly nervous wife and nine-month-old child to fight the Israeli blaze. “The main concern of my family was ‘which area are you going to be in?’' and when I told them I would Jerusalem, they were quite concerned because Jerusalem is one of the areas were there is conflict, compared to Tel Aviv,” remarked Andreou, who added that he didn’t share his family’s fears.

In Israel the Cypriots split up into seven teams.

Andreou’s team was tasked with putting out “hot spots” in the Jerusalem hills. “The first night we went looking for hot spots and we spotted a flame so we climbed down with our hoses and tools on our shoulder,” he said while wearing an orange firefighter’s jumpsuit and National Geographic beanie.

Despite coming from a country which still faces an ongoing territorial dispute with Turkey, Andreou does not find the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a useful comparison to the Cyprus-Turkey conflict. “Everyone on both sides of the [Turkish-Cyprus conflict] tries to make that comparison,” he said, adding, “we have Palestinians in Cyprus just like we have Israelis, so I have heard both sides, and I understand that there is never one side.”

This delegation of Cypriot firefighters is a continuation of Israeli- Cyprus cooperation on the issue of disaster assistance. In 2010 Cyprus sent assistance to help battle the ferocious Carmel fire and in June Israel sent assistance to battle flames in Cyprus. “In June we had the biggest fire in our history. We lost 19 square km. of forest; the fire was burning for three days. We lost two men and one is still seriously injured. That’s when the Israeli firefighters and airplanes came,” said Andreou.

Andreou, who had visited the country before, hopes to come again, but not to tackle flames; rather to tackle another challenge, the 1,100-km. Israel National Trail. “A few months ago I had some people from Israel in the national park I work in. They told me about the national trail, it sounds really nice. I’d love to do it.”

The Palestinian

Majd al-Qadri, a 27-year-old firefighter, and his Arab-Israeli counterpart approached the heart of a raging fire near Abu Ghosh, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on Friday just before midnight. “It was the most difficult experience in my whole career as a member of the Civil Defense,” Qadri told the Jerusalem Post Magazine at Ramallah’s Palestinian Authority Civil Defense headquarters on Monday. “I felt like I could die seeing the walls of fire around me, but my fellow firefighter gave me the confidence to move forward and help extinguish the heart of the fire and lower the flames.”

Qadri, who hails from Ramallah’s old city, was asked on Thursday if he wanted to help extinguish fires in Israel.

Majd Al-Qadri, from Ramallah (photo credit: ADAM RASGON)

“When I heard about the mission, I immediately raised my hand,” Qadri said, even though he was scheduled to start a week-long vacation. “I had heard about the fires in the news and I wanted help extinguish them.”

The young firefighter then called his family members and said farewell: “I told them if anything happens, I want to say goodbye.”

The PA Civil Defense mobilized eight fire trucks on Thursday night, sending four fire trucks into the foothills of Jerusalem and four others into Haifa and its environs.

The Civil Defense also sent a number of trucks to Israel during the Mount Carmel fire, and frequently extinguishes fires in tandem with Israel in the West Bank.

Qadri said that it made no difference to him that he was extinguishing fires in Israel. “We, in the Civil Defense, have a humanitarian goal and that is to preserve life whether it is human life, wildlife or trees,” he said. “We cannot differentiate between people, because they have living souls. We have a duty to help anyone who calls for our help, regardless of citizenship or religion.”

Qadri added that his Israeli counterparts and the Jerusalemites treated him with the utmost respect.

“They treated us excellently,” he remarked. “We had no problems with anyone, be it the firefighters, the army, or the people. Everyone constantly made sure that we had everything we needed.”

After he and his fellow Palestinian firefighters completed their mission on Tuesday, Qadri can enjoy his week of vacation, but he said, “I am ready to go back at any moment to fight the fires.

“At the end of the day, fires do not distinguish between people, whether Palestinian or Jewish, and as a member of the Civil Defense, I want to help people however I can.”

The Israeli

“It was hard and cold, long and very windy,” Shai Drori, 29, stationed at the Givat Mordechai station said, obviously relieved that the bulk of Israel’s fire crisis was over.

Drori is a relatively fresh face in the Jerusalem fire department, working for two and half years, after serving as a paratrooper in the IDF. He said that he dreamed of pursuing the career from a young age.

Shai Drori, from the Jerusalem District fire department (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Over the last weekend of November, Drori was on the front line, battling the raging fires in Neveh Ilan and Nataf in the Jerusalem hills, which engulfed a number of homes in Nataf.

Along with Drori, putting out the fire were Palestinian firefighters who helped to gain control of flames in the Nataf area. “This was without politics,” he said, “firefighter to firefighter. We went to put out the fire, without thinking about from where, and why and how.”

Regarding the Cypriots and Americans that have filled his fire station over the past weekend, Drori was extremely thankful. “These are truly friends that came to help, they love the country and the state. It warms the heart.”

Asked if he plans to travel to the US, Drori said he would love to, and added that he has made some new friends that he would love to visit.

The Americans

Hailing from the Arlington Texas Fire Department, Chris Balough, 45, and Keith Copeman, 59, have a combined 58 years of firefighting experience, which they volunteered in Israel for five days. Their thick Texas drawls aside, the pair quickly found camaraderie with their Israeli counterparts.

“It’s no different here than in the States,” said Balough, “The same stuff we do there is here, horseplay, joking around, you know – picking on the rookie and giving him the dirty work – it’s the same things.”

“The same exact thing,” agreed Copeman. Arguably their greatest challenge was learning Hebrew names, “We’re still having a hard time with names. You know they’re not like Chuck, Steve and Todd. Today is a whole new crew and we have to learn all new names and new people.”

Both Balough and Copeman were on a plane within 20 hours of getting a call from EVP – the Emergency Volunteer Project – which brings foreign emergency workers to Israel in the event of disaster. This was their first time visiting Israel, and both were surprised at how large and urban Jerusalem is. “I had seen pictures of the Old City of Jerusalem, but I didn’t know how big [it is] and how many people are here,” remarked Balough.

Coming from Texas, which is largely flat, the pair had to adapt to steep Jerusalem hills, yet most of their volunteer work has not been combating fires, but providing the station with maintenance assistance and responding to a gas leak, stuck elevator, and a structural fire in Jerusalem. Both acknowledged that the lack of action with the headline making fire was a bit disappointing. “That is why we are here, so we’d like to be doing that,” said Copeman. “But we are here to help in any way that the Israelis need, so we are giving those guys a little bit of a break,” added Balough.

On politics the pair were reticent, saying they discussed political issues “a little bit” with their Israeli counterparts.

“They tell us who plays nice with who,” said Balough, “they have their opinions and we just let them say their opinion and we don’t discuss it much with them, because this is their home,” added Copeman.

Hanging around the fire station has given the pair ample time to learn about the Israeli firefighters and to learn their quirks. “They like to eat here, and they like ice cream, oh my gosh,” remarked Copeman, “The freezer is full of it!” “In the States, any time you get on TV or in the newspaper you have to buy ice cream for everyone,” said Balough, “So we kid about that because here [they] eat ice cream all day long. Firefighters like sweets – they like them here and we like them too.”

Working with the Israelis has been going smoothly as well.

“For us a hose is hose and a nozzle is a nozzle. Same thing. Water in, water out,” said Balough, “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

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