One week after my city was set on fire, I’m having a hard time writing about what happened. It’s different when something traumatic happens to you.
I don’t even have a full picture of the day in my head. It’s like scenes in a play, disjointed blips and in between, blank.
Last week, before the fire:
“I have to water the garden. Everything is dry as bone. The plants will die.”
My house is surrounded by greenery that makes the area seem tranquil, although we are actually just a few steps away from one of the main centers of Haifa.
In the beginning of last week, looking at the garden I saw thirsty plants, pitifully shriveled from the too dry weather.
On Thursday I saw a death trap.
Fires in Zichron Ya’acov, a small town, 30 minutes down the road.
Suspicions of terrorist acts of arson were in the forefront of my mind. Yes, the weather was dry. Yes, it was very windy. These conditions make it very easy for fire to spread but fire burning people’s homes?! That’s not common in Israel. Every winter there are a few electric fires in homes due to heater malfunctions. Every summer there are a few bush fires when dry conditions combined with human negligence, turns a spark from a cigarette or an improperly extinguished bonfire into a serious fire. None of these are like the raging, uncontrollable flames that were consuming people’s homes. The pattern was different.
In addition, the firefighters and authorities were beginning to hint about their suspicions, saying, but not saying, what they thought was causing the fires. Fire experts would investigate and tell us conclusively what caused the fires but first it was necessary to get control of the flames and see that everyone was safe.
I went outside and looked at the garden. One spark. That’s all it would take. Once the plants began to burn, the wind would do the rest and the house would quickly be on fire too.
I watered the garden, pouring loads of water. I soaked the trees, their dry leaves and even the side of the house.
I knew it wouldn’t be enough. The plants would be grateful but the wind would make the water evaporate quickly. No matter how much I poured it wouldn’t be enough to stop potential flames. I went inside. Alone at home, it seemed a good time to clean the house for the weekend and do some cooking.
Suddenly there was no water in the taps.
I smelled smoke. Looking outside, I saw big billowing clouds of grey smoke overhead. On the radio there was a report of a fire in Haifa. It was one neighborhood away from mine. Close but not too close.
I caught the cat and made sure he stayed in the house with the dog.
Mor (Lenny’s 17-year-old son) called me and asked if I was listening to the radio. He said the pre-military academy (which shares the campus with his high school) was on fire and he would be coming home.
A fire to my left and a fire to my right. Two separate, non-connected places with my neighborhood in between. The pre-military academy. Coincidence?
Fire spreads with the winds. Sparks do fly. They don’t jump over entire neighborhoods.
I called Lenny. He was in a meeting on the other side of Haifa, said he would be home soon.
Mor called again saying he thought we should pack suitcases and evacuate the area.
Not sure what to do I turned off what I was cooking, stopped cleaning and went back outside. The smoke wasn’t worse. Knowing it wouldn’t help, I started watering the garden again. The sounds of sirens on the road, very close. Fire extinguishing planes were flying overhead.
What do you do when someone sets your city on fire?
Our neighbor leapt over the fence and flew into the yard shouting for his mom to pack up his son so they could get out of the area. His wife came running from a different direction and within minutes was carrying their three-year-old to the car.
Mor arrived, explaining that everyone had been evacuated from the school. Lenny arrived. He could barely get to the house. He had seen the smoke in the distance and, as he came closer, people streaming away from the area on foot. The roads were beginning to be blocked, fire-trucks and people driving in all directions.
Fires all around us, the authorities requested everyone in our neighborhood (as well as the neighborhoods that were already on fire) to evacuate the area.
Asnalyzing the danger
In a swiftly changing situation it isn’t easy to know what is the right thing to do. Where is it safe? How do you get there? What do you leave behind?
Lenny had a few heartbeats to analyze the situation. First our safety, then the house, the car and the chaos on the road. He put the car in the underground parking lot of the hospital that is a few minutes’ walk from our house. There it wouldn’t get ruined by fire-trucks trying to get by, fire, trees falling... Driving in to the chaos on the roads wasn’t a good idea. If we had to evacuate the house, the underground parking lot of the hospital (which can also serve as a bomb shelter) would be a safe place to go. If we had to go there, we would have to run.
While putting on his police uniform (Lenny is a volunteer policeman), Lenny explained to Mor that he was unwilling to evacuate the house, although we had been given the order to do so.
Lenny went back outside to help people and so did Mor. Like father, like son.
Tal (Lenny’s eldest son) was somewhere en-route, on the way home from his army base. He heard the news and was unsure what to do when he arrived in Haifa. We couldn’t pick him up. He couldn’t come to us. Possibly he could go to his mother’s house or to his grandparents who live in different neighborhoods of Haifa. I told him to check when he got closer. Who knew what the situation would be then?
Unnerved by the apocalyptic images he was receiving on social media, Tal was distressed to hear that his father and brother were outside in the neighborhood when we were supposed to be evacuating the area.
“Where are they?! What are they doing outside?!”
“I don’t know! Why?! Because they are two of a kind. That’s why!” I was upset that I didn’t know where they were or what was going on. I knew Lenny was helping people. I was sure Mor was with him and OK but I would have felt better to have them home, with me.
Impossible to breathe
Lenny called me and asked that I bring him cloth to cover his mouth so he wouldn’t inhale too much smoke while he continued to help people. I didn’t know what to bring so I grabbed a few options and ran out of the house. Almost immediately my eyes started to burn and I began to find it difficult to breathe. The sky was grey with smoke and the air thick with ash. Smoke clogged my throat, soaking in to my pores. I went towards the main road looking for Lenny.
I saw Mor on the other side of the street. He had covered is mouth with a shirt and was busy helping people.
An elderly neighbor saw me and asked me what she was supposed to do. As if I knew… An elegant woman, she was perfectly put together, like she always is. She was carrying a small bag in her hand and had a wild look in her eyes. I told her to come with me to where Lenny was. He would know what to do. Then she explained that her son in law told her to leave the house, that he was on the way to pick her up. Phew. If he was coming to get her she’d be OK, the only issue was being able to breathe. I gave her one of the cloths I brought for Lenny to choose from and told her to cover her mouth so she could breathe better. After I saw that she did as I instructed I ran off to find Lenny.
On the other side of the street I saw three women, carrying small bags and a cat carrier frantically trying to flag down a car leaving the area.
I found Lenny on the main road where he was helping direct traffic so people could evacuate the area or get to the hospital, if necessary. The police didn’t know which way to send the traffic. More and more fires were appearing. Smoke was everywhere and roads were jammed with cars. Which direction would be safest? Almost impossible to tell.
I went back towards the house and a fireman saw me. “You can’t go that way! It’s too dangerous, there are fires down the street!”
I kept on walk-running telling him “I have to, I have animals in the house.”
Following me he said, “Get them and get out fast. You have to go NOW.”
“OK, OK, I’m going” I said, expecting him to leave me alone.
“I’m coming with you and will leave when you leave.”
He stood by the door while I grabbed my computer, purse (keys and money), shoved the cat in the cat carrier and tied up the dog. While I was grabbing the most crucial things I was calling Lenny, telling him what was going on.
I thought the fireman was going to pick me up and carry me away from the house. He was really upset, worried about me. When he saw Lenny (in his police uniform) running up to the house, he realized he could turn over responsibility to him and left.
The poor man must have thought I was insane. He was doing his job thoroughly, going door to door, checking to see who needed to be evacuated, who needed help. All he wanted was to protect people, to save lives. It is thanks to people like him that no one died in the fires that swept the country.
Suddenly there was no electricity in the house.
Mor came home, telling us of the fires he had seen in the neighborhood. Lenny asked me to close the shutters. We have metal shutters that would provide a little bit of protection from flames. That’s one of the benefits of having an older house. Most people have plastic shutters. Those just melt in the heat.
I let the cat out of the carrier and locked him in one of the rooms to make it easier to catch him in case we would have to run out of the house.
Mor wanted to pack a suitcase and evacuate. He had seen the fires and was nervous. Lenny had seen our neighbors battling fires in their yards and saving their homes. Mor had helped a neighbor extinguish a fire in his yard so he understood the benefit of staying. The fire-fighters couldn’t handle so many fires on their own. People battling the small fires could stop them from becoming the infernos that consumed homes and trees.
What do you take?
Leaving would mean grabbing what we could carry and running to safety. My hands had to be free for the dog and the cat. No room for anything replaceable. Photos? Lenny is a photographer. We have bookcases full of albums, many of them from before the digital age – in other words, there are no digital images that could be reprinted to replace lost albums. There is no way we could take all of them. Not even a few. I suggested to Mor he pack up what he’d like to take. I packed a few precious photos, a thin handmade quilt my mother made for me, bellbottoms she embroidered when she was 18, my computer, the book I was reading, cash, jewelry, a hairbrush, toothbrushes and toothpaste for everyone. That’s it.
Lenny went to the far side of the house and looked out. He came back in a rush.
“Ok. We have to leave. Pack up things and be ready. NOW.”
“What did you see?”
“There are flames as high as the house, very close by.”
Lenny put some important documents in a suitcase. I ran to get the cat, my heart pounding. I could smell smoke inside the house.
The cat had already been stuffed in the cat carrier once that day and knew something was very wrong. With the window closed, the shutter down and no electricity, the room was completely dark. I couldn’t see him and he didn’t want to be found. I dove under the bed, flailing my arms around until I caught him.
Phew. In to the box, again.
I put the cat carrier alongside everything packed to take, by the door. Lenny wasn’t ready to leave quite yet.
The cat was in hysterics, trying to get out of the cat carrier. I sat next to him, trying to quiet him but in his panic, he didn’t seem to notice me. I tried covering the box with a blanket but he just began pulling the blanket in to the box, scratching the sides, frantically trying to find a way to get out.
I didn’t blame him. I felt trapped too.
I took the blanket away and the dog came to look in to the box, shaking.
Lenny went to check on the flames. They had been put out! We didn’t have to go. Yet.
It was only later on, when Lenny went back outside that we found out exactly what had happened.
Behind our garden there are steps leading from our street up to the main road. On each side of the steps there are fences covered in bushes, higher than my head. On one side is our yard. On the other side of the steps is an old age home. Someone threw something burning in to the bushes on the side of the old age home. The fire ate a specific section of the bushes and spread in to the garden of the old age home. Those were the flames Lenny saw, so close to our building.
The wind could have easily blown sparks across the path, spreading the fire into our garden as well. The garden is bone dry; had the trees caught fire our home would have quickly gone up in flames as well. The old age home has fire hoses suitable for battling this type of fire but the workers there didn’t know how to connect the hoses! To our great luck a (volunteer) policemen that lives on the other side of the old age home was there, saw what was happening, helped connect the hoses and made sure the fire was extinguished. This is footage he sent Lenny of the fire being put out.
They had seen the arsonist ignite the fire but they were too busy putting it out to catch him.
Not knowing is scary
Friends started calling me to see if I was safe. What was I supposed to answer? My house wasn’t burning. Some of my neighbors’ homes were. Could my house begin burning? Yes, at any moment.
It gets dark very early these days and there was no electricity in the house so it was pitch black. No TV. We had to be careful to conserve the power in our mobile phones as well. Who knew when the electricity would come back? A battery powered radio helped us stay informed about what was happening in our city. The report was that the fire-fighters were beginning to gain control of the fires in the different locations. Hopefully there would be no new ones but the high winds could reignite sparks into full blown, very dangerous fires.
How do you go to sleep when your house could go up in flames? We could all die from smoke asphyxiation.
Everything smelled like smoke, even inside the house. We were all too tired to care.
The news report said the investigation of the fires in Zichron showed that they were caused by arson terrorists. The authorities suspected that the fires in Haifa were also caused by terrorists but they would only know for certain after the investigation was over.
When it was safe to drive on the roads. Tal came to our house and Mor went to his mother’s house. The boys wanted to see both their parents.
The electricity came back. It had been turned off to prevent fire from reaching live wires and igniting even bigger flames.
We went to sleep with our bags still packed, in case it became necessary to evacuate the house. It was only then I noticed that I had kept my shoes on all day, although I had been inside. I almost never wear shoes in the house.
The next morning our stairs were covered in ash and the air reeked of smoke.
Lenny and Tal went outside to survey the damage while I listened to the news. Over 1,800 homes were damaged and of those 527 were deemed uninhabitable.
The head of the parents’ committee at Mor’s school had her home burnt to the ground. She described how the fire-fighters at work on her home were called to an even worse fire, leaving her and her neighbors the fire hoses so they could battle the flames on their own. The interviewer, safe in some studio in Tel Aviv, couldn’t imagine the situation. Stunned, he asked, “How were you supposed to know what to do?! You aren’t fire-fighters!” Calmly she explained: “We stood should to shoulder with our neighbors and poured water on the flames. My home is gone but our neighbors’ homes are OK. Thank God my family is fine.”
Another woman who lives one neighborhood away from me described driving through a wall of flames to escape the fires on Thursday. On Friday, she came back to her house and found that the bottom floor is burnt. Her reaction? In a shaky voice, she said: "It's OK. We're OK. Others have it worse."
Over and over I heard Israelis express gratitude - for life, for the people that helped them save their lives, for the people taking care of them now. Not rage at those who stole away their homes, their memories - gratitude. Life matters more than stuff.
This past week has been full of volunteers. Teenagers helping families clear out their ruined homes, covering holes so the coming rains won’t ruin what is left in people’s homes. Enormous amounts of clothes, food and toys have been donated. The government is looking for ways to cut bureaucratic procedures to ensure that compensation is given swiftly – to those who had home insurance and also to those who did not. Between the government assistance and volunteers opening their homes to shelter those whose homes have been damaged, no one is left without a roof over their head.
It will take a long time for the people who lost their homes to put their lives back together. It is heart wrenching to think of the memories lost, the historic artifacts that survived other traumas only to be destroyed now. I don’t know if people will ever be able to regain the same sense of safety in their homes…
We are all grateful that lives were saved. Some people were unable to save their pets. Many walked through fire to rescue animals. I shudder to think of the wildlife that has been incinerated.
The experts say it will take 30 years to bring the trees back to the same level of growth we had before the fires.
These are the things I want people who live elsewhere to know:
The fires that swept Israel were arson-terror. It wasn’t negligence. It wasn’t forest fires. It was fires directed at homes.
You need to pay attention to this because what begins with us, ends with you.
This event showed, yet again, the true face of Israel – in times of trouble we don’t loot our cities, we help each other. We don’t wait for the authorities to save us or fix things for us. We do it together, with gratitude to be alive. Most of all, although unthinkable hate is directed at us, we don’t respond with hate.
And finally – we will rebuild. We will rebuild homes and plant new trees. We will make this land even more beautiful than it was before. This is our home and we aren’t going anywhere.
This is what Haifa looks like after the fires, from a drone’s view. It gives you an idea of the damage although it doesn’t show the terrible destruction of homes and nothing conveys the impact of the smell.
Now it is raining, finally. That will help wash our city clean, make the air fresh and pure again.