At ten o’clock Wednesday night, we feared that we would shortly be evacuated from our home. We could see the flames in the forest below Moshav Neve Ilan, the small community to the west of Jerusalem where we live. We also saw fire racing up a distant hill across the valley. Along with other residents of Neve Ilan, my wife Jodie and I stood watching the flames, worried that danger was quickly approaching.
But there was something strange, and this was what saved us. We couldn’t smell smoke. The fire was barely 2 kilometers away but with a strong wind behind us, the wildfire was spreading to the west. Down the valley and towards Highway 1, the main highway leading into Jerusalem.
In our worries about approaching wildfires, we were hardly alone. Israel is currently battling fires all around the country. Zichron Yaakov; Dolev; Nataf and Beit Meir – two communities very close to ours. 65,000 residents of Haifa were evacuated from their homes yesterday. Houses and apartments have gone up in flames. Extensive property damage. Luckily, no loss of life, yet many have suffered from smoke inhalation. And Israel’s brave fireman continue to battle the fires.
Why is this happening? First of all, Israel is in the midst of a very dry November and no rain is in sight. More than that, there are fierce winds, most of them blowing to the west. Some of these fires are definitely the result of carelessness. The fire at Nataf resulted from four workers heating up their coffee over a small fire which got out of control with the heavy winds.
But there is something more. It’s not simply a coincidence that fires broke out simultaneously in five different places around Haifa. These fires are the result of arson – you could even call this a new form of terrorism. When someone attacks property in attempts to cause damage and the loss of human life, what could you call it other than acts of terror? Some of these fires, for sure, were intentionally set.
At Neve Ilan we have a right to be worried. In 1995, a forest fire raced up the valley from Shaar Hagay through the Judean Hills to our community. The trees in the forest and in Neve Ilan went up in flames. Five houses were damaged, including the house next door to my in-laws, which was totally destroyed. Seeing the flames not too far away this Wednesday, how could we not fear a repeat of what we went through twenty years ago?
So, what do you do when you see a nearby fire, when you’re fearful of being evacuated from your homes?
As Jodie wrote that night:
“This is surreal - we've packed an emergency bag in case we are evacuated - how do you decide what are the most important things that you need to take with you, when you can't really take anything?”
The next morning, the flames were no longer threatening our community. The fire was moving westward, endangering other places.
As Jodie wrote:
“Update on the fire near us - still not fully under control, and the winds today are supposed to be worse than yesterday. Something like this makes you stop for a minute and think about what's important to you. Most of what's in our homes is replaceable. Sure, we would be sorry to lose it, but it's not everything. Pictures are one of the main things. I took a few out of frames and albums last night just to make sure that I had something with me of the people who are important to me.
“And I feel blessed that we had the time to think about this and prepare a small bag. In other parts of the country, there were quite a few families who had to run out of their homes with nothing and lost everything.”
This morning, firemen are still battling wildfires in different parts of Israel. The residents of Haifa have yet to be allowed to return to their homes. Some of them have no homes to go back to. We are thankful to have been spared the worst, but the danger of these fires is not over.