The hot zone

Fires are so common in Ma'aleh Hahamisha that many kibbutz members have become volunteer firefighters.

Fire nazareth 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Fire nazareth 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
The summer wildfire season is in full swing, and while a blaze could flare up in any of the dry, grassy hills throughout the country, one area in particular, the Jerusalem Hills, is really heating up. A large fire charred the area around Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha last Saturday afternoon, damaging an elementary school and destroying part of a nearby Jewish National Fund forest. The following day, wildfires swept through the hills near Mevaseret Zion, where firefighters were able to extinguish the flames just before they hit homes. But residents say fires are nothing new. Whether caused by arson, which Saturday's reportedly was, or from exceedingly high summer temperatures mixed with dry brush, residents of the fire zone do their best to lead normal lives, hoping fires will steer clear of them and their homes. "There's a fire around here basically every year," says a hothouse employee at the entrance to Ma'aleh Hahamisha. "It's really a serious situation. This hothouse in particular was burned down in a fire started by Arabs from a nearby village in 1992," she says, pointing toward the hills of Ramallah where white houses glimmer in the sun. "But that's life in this area," she continues. "There are lots of fires. They happen so often that many of the kibbutz members have become volunteer firefighters. They're used to helping out when the fire department needs them." Up the road, the barking of dogs echoes from a kennel, where there are between 20 and 30 dogs at any given time. "It's like evacuating people, just a little more complicated," says a kennel employee, in the event that a fire were to reach the kennel. Still, he seems unfazed by the recent spate of fires in the area. "It's a nice life here until the chaos hits." But chaos nearly hit on Saturday, as a huge wildfire ripped through the valley just below the kibbutz, causing the partial evacuation of Ma'aleh Hahamisha's hotel, and a full evacuation of their swimming pool. "The hotel manager came out and made the decision to evacuate the pool," a pool employee says. "But nobody panicked. Everyone left in a calm, orderly fashion. There are a lot of fires in the area; it's a regular thing for them." The scene he illustrates of the firefighters' response, however, sounds far from regular, with helicopters and airplanes called in to extinguish the fires from above. Gil Zafner, kibbutz security head and hotel manager, says the wind was to credit for an averted disaster on Saturday. "If the flames and all the smoke had reached the hotel, it would have been bad," he says. "Even the smoke, if it had all gone into the hotel, it would have been hard for people to breathe. But the wind blew the smoke just past the hotel and it barely touched us, the flames didn't come close. We still had people in the farthest wing move out of their rooms for a couple hours on Saturday as a precaution, but after that everything went back to normal." Zafner says he doesn't believe the area fires will affect the hotel's business. "People who come here aren't worried about those sorts of things," he says. "We've dealt with fires before, and we know what we're doing." Still, Zafner admits that Saturday's blaze reached closer to the hotel than any other fire before it. "Firefighters put out the flames, and no homes in the area were damaged," he says. Har Adar resident Ze'ev Yaakov pulled his car to the side of the road on Sunday to take in the blackened trees and brush that only a day before were green and yellow. "It causes problems every year," he says of the fires. "But what can you do about it? It's natural."