The firefighters' brotherhood: U.S. volunteers battle flames in Israel

This team of 10 is helping to ease the load of Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

US volunteers help battle flames in Israel, August 2018 (Dennis Zinn/The Jerusalem Post)
Inspired by their global bonds of brotherhood, a group of 10 American firemen recently flew to Israel to fight ongoing fires in the South, a firefighter from Baltimore told The Jerusalem Post, while on standby at the Sderot fire station Wednesday.
“We, as firefighters, like to think of ourselves as committed to an international brotherhood and sisterhood, and there is so much going on here in Israel that we feel really compelled to help however we can,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a physician and volunteer firefighter.
The group of volunteer firefighters, who hail from a variety of states, took vacation from their jobs to help lighten the burden on Israeli fire and emergency services, which have been strained to put out blazes caused by incendiary kites, balloons and condoms launched from the Gaza Strip for the past four months.
The group was mobilized by the Emergency Volunteer Project (EVP), an organization based in Jerusalem and West Hempstead, New York, which trains and deploys international fire and rescue personnel to Israel in times of crisis, in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America.
EVP was founded in 2009 by Adi Zahavi, who also serves as the organization’s CEO.
“I grew up in Magen David Adom, and I’ve been a first responder since 1996,” Zahavi told the Post. “I’ve been in bus explosions and terror attacks and with everything I experienced, when I learned there are so many friends of Israel in the US that want to help – and we will need help. I said, let’s found an organization that can be a bridge between Israel’s needs and those who want to help, and bring them here in times of crisis.”
With fires burning closer to home, one may wonder if the firefighters are needed more in their own country. But Ellenbogen explained this is not always the case.
“It’s really important for us to fight fire everywhere, not just in our hometown or just in Israel,” Ellenbogen said. “Even when there are fires raging, sometimes more firefighters aren’t necessarily needed, and so we’ve been listening to and paying attention to the situations of fires in California and Greece and elsewhere, and so far we have not been asked to go to those places.”
Israel, Ellenbogen said, has been working intensively for months to put out more than 1,000 fires, and expressed the need for relief.
Ellenbogen arrived in Israel to evaluate the situation before the official deployment.
“We surveyed the land and did all kinds of reconnaissance, and it was really clear that the firefighters were overextended and exhausted, the fires themselves were enormous, and the need was there. So we offered and said, we have a group that is continuously dedicated to giving assistance. And they said, ‘we need it and let’s get started.’”
This is Ellenbogen’s third trip to Israel with EVP. The previous times he and his colleagues lent extra pairs of hands to Israeli fire stations, while the US and Israeli counterparts learned from each other’s methods.
“So the organization positioned us well to jump right in, and we did. We drove right to the fire station and had a fire the first night, and have been moving from fire to fire, literally, since we’ve been here almost nonstop.”
Yaron Koren, a Fire and Rescue Services officer and project chief for EVP, expressed appreciation for the American aid.
“They are a force multiplier. They are partners to all our activities. We have been working [on these fires] for a long period already and the pressure is great on the entire firefighting service across all of Israel. The US firefighters are easing that pressure,” Koren told the Post.
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also paid a visit to the team at the Sderot fire station on Wednesday morning, expressing his gratitude to them.
“They demonstrated an amazing solidarity between the American people and the Israeli people,” he said. “It’s an act of true friendship and true love, and I think the people here know that if the United States would need help, the Israelis would come to the United States to help. I don’t think there is a better way to demonstrate solidarity, love and cooperation between the United States and Israel.”
Friedman was not the only visitor. A family from Sderot stopped by to hand the firefighters cards handmade by the children, as well as “Time Out” chocolate bars, with a hopeful message the firefighters will have time out from duty.
“Anyone who wants to know why I would use my precious vacation time to come to Israel to fight fires, they just need to look into the eyes of those children who came to the station with their crafts with candy attached to it,” said Aston Bright, a pharmaceutical representative and volunteer firefighter from Plantation Fire Department in Florida. “I was so moved and felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to help those kids.”
On Tuesday too, a family brought food for the firefighters working out of the Ashkelon station.
“I love the state of Israel. I have a close connection to the Jewish people. Many of my closest friends are Jewish. I am Jewish by association you could say,” Bright said. “I feel that I have a moral obligation to help Israel in their time of need, and I’m glad to do it.”
On Tuesday, the firefighters were up against strong winds when large fires broke out in the Ruhama badlands. Bulldozers, planes and helicopters were called in to assist as the firefighters on the ground struggled to contain the blaze.
“The planes swooped in and dropped two loads of fire foam, which helped to put the fire out, so we could go in and clean up after them,” said Bright, who had been watching from a gorge. “That fire took us about three hours to put out. Winds were very high so when we put it out in one spot, it would flare up in another.”
“It was a matter of trying to stay ahead of it and bringing enough water, too. It was a group effort,” Bright said. That group includes the volunteers, Fire and Rescue Services and an IDF unit that assists firefighting efforts.
The volunteers run regular calls as well, including apartment fires and an attempted suicide. “We help in any way we can to alleviate the burdens on the fire and emergency services,” Bright said.
Bright said he has not encountered an arson phenomenon similar to the Gaza Strip’s situation.
“It’s a devastating thing to try to burn Israel. It’s been growing and cultivating for decades, and it’s an assault to humanity to try to burn it down. I think it’s insane why anyone would want to burn anything. I’m a firefighter, but no, I have never seen anything quite like this where you create a device to try to start a fire over vast swaths of land,” Bright said, standing on a black carpet of ash remains in the area of Kibbutz Mefalsim.
Many of the volunteers learned about the initiative through the Jewish Federations of North America, which covered the expenses necessary to bring the American firefighters.
“Israelis in the South and throughout the country need to know that Jewish Federations are here to aid in times of crisis and times of peace, finding ways to strengthen Jewish peoplehood with compassion and commitment,” said Rebecca Caspi, director general of JFNA Israel.
“Firefighting in Israel is a bit different to what we’re used to in Hollywood,” remarked Darien Munoz, a firefighter from Hollywood, Florida. “For one, they wear ballistic protection; work closely with the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), drive around in bomb-proof fire trucks, and someone on the crew must always be armed. Their ambulance (EMS) service is much the same way. Their trauma skills are put to the test everyday.”
Anthony Vera, PR director for the Hollywood Professional Firefighters, explained his association’s willingness to see its member, Munoz, lend his service to Israel through their motto “Always on duty for you,” which he said extends to their “brothers and sisters” around the world.
“We support Darien in his selfless service and dedication to helping our biggest and most loyal ally in the Middle East,” Vera told the Post. “We can’t change the world, but we can do our part to make it better and safer. Whether it’s a small community, county or country.”
The Fire and Rescue Services have recorded more than 1,300 fires over the past four months from incendiary devices sent from Gaza, which in turn have scorched 3,000 hectares of land.
The flames have devastated national parks and lands of communities near the Gaza border, damaged irrigation systems, harmed livestock and crops, and killed wildlife.
“We just cannot allow this to happen. So we have to do what we can to help,” said Bright.