Depending on where you stand in the Carmel region, the scent of wood smoke is still in the air. If it weren’t for the destruction it represents, the scent would be holiday-like, appealing. Every tree lost in the 45,000 dunam (11,000 acres) of land that was consumed in the Carmel region is a heartbreak in the parched land of Israel. But to mourn the trees is missing the point, says Rabbi Yehuda Donin of Chabad of the Carmel region.
“This wasn’t just a fire. The tragedy is that people were killed.”
That 42 people – prison service officer trainees, Haifa’s police chief, and a 16-year-old who volunteered to fight the fire – died in what is being called Israel’s worst wildfire, has the Israeli public shocked and questioning the readiness of their country’s firefighters.
In the aftermath of the fire, Rabbi Donin’s days are spent answering calls for help. He’s brought mattresses to families who left with the clothes on their back and cannot return home, or have no home to return to. “People know that they can get in touch with us when their family is in trouble.”
Most of the 17,000 evacuees are returning to their homes, assessing the damage, figuring out how to rebuild their lives. Seventy homes were completely destroyed, 170 were partially damaged. Businesses – bookstores, galleries, supermarkets – went up in flames. A glance at the charred, roofless, waterlogged homes, the street lights melted from the heat of the flames, shows how liberal the definition of “partial damage” is.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request that an immediate grant of 2,500 ILS ($700) be distributed to each family member displaced by the fire has been held up. Finance Ministry officials wary of the fund generating a legacy of dependence on government aid after future fires. In the meantime, people in the Carmel region are hurting.
“The families that have been evacuated here in the Carmel urgently need help obtaining basic items: beds, blankets, pillows, closets, and, of course, food,” said Rabbi Donin. ChabadCarmel.org now has a donation page for those who want to help locals affected by the fire. Now that the fire is out, the real need begins. “We hope that whoever reads the article will come to our site and give whatever they can.”
Total financial damage from the fire is thought to be 1 billion ILS (350 million USD). Knesset members are clamoring for another 2 billion ILS to supply Israel’s fire fighters with the equipment and training the need to fight the next disaster more efficiently.
Easterly winds and an autumn of scant little rain and record high temperatures were blamed for the fire’s rapid spread. The long awaited rains finally came on Sunday. “The rain came too late. The fire was already mostly out by then,” said Rabbi Donin. Raindrops helped put out hot spots and soaked the ground enough to prevent flare ups.
When word about the fire came over the airways, Rabbi Donin packed Chanukah donuts, sandwiches, cold drinks into his car and headed toward the flames. Throughout the blaze’s four long nights, he brought food, drink, Chanukah lights, tefillin—along with generous doses of badly needed moral support, to the firefighters, police, soldiers, and families in the shelters.
When Friday afternoon approached, Chabad set up Shabbat services at the command post on the grounds of the University of Haifa.
“It was emotionally intense and difficult, as people gathered to light Shabbat candles, trying to come to grips with the extent of the disaster,” Rabbi Mendy Kramer, a Chabad representative in the region told lubavitch.com.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and his wife Rivka Yahav joined Chabad in prayer services.
Driving along Highway 4 to reach those in need was treacherous. When the hills ahead turned from leafy green to a blaze of red, the rabbis reversed course to get away from the flames. Back on the road, late at night, they found a group of young fire-fighting volunteers resting at a gas station, too tired to go on. “They were surprised to see Chabad coming to them with donuts,” Rabbi Kramer said.
Well past midnight on the first night after the fire broke out, when Chabad of Carmel pulled into a Haifa public school serving as a shelter. The evacuees asked the Chabad representatives to kindle the menorah. That night, the light meant more than a remembrance of a miracle of thousands of years earlier.
“There was a feeling,” observes Rabbi Kramer, “that the candles were lit in memory of those who perished.”