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The Mt. Carmel Inferno: Eyewitness Account

HAIFA – Bulgarian firefighters have agreed to let me tag along with them as they make their way up the gullies in the Carmel Forest, seeking out flames still burning uncontrolled.

I walk with Mikhail, probably the only Bulgarian firefighter on earth who speaks Hebrew. He is also a medic, and had earlier done some work in Israel, long enough to pick up basic Hebrew. He and the other Bulgarian fire fighters just came down from the command center at the University of Haifa.

His colleagues are amused that an aging professor wants to accompany them. Meanwhile, a religious couple from Haifa comes out of the bushes carrying large boxes of sufganiyot and distributes them to the firefighters, thanking each of them personally with a “spaseeba!”

All around us the brushes and trees are smoking. Every gust of wind stirs up ash. Countless firefighting planes circle overhead, interrupted by the circling giant American 747 that has just arrived. The command-and-control center for the entire battle against the fires has been set up on the University of Haifa campus. A parking lot there contains so many Russian firefighters that a large Russian flag has been raised.

The firefighters are amazed when campus security staffers speak and joke with them in Russian. They are commanded by the Russian deputy minister for national emergencies, the same fellow who led the battle against the forest fires around Moscow last summer. The soft-spoken guy is a giant, a Russian Paul Bunyan, who seems capable of blowing out forest fires with his breath.

These were not the Chanukah flames Israel was expecting. On the first day of the festival the top of Mount Carmel looked like one of those volcanoes you see on the National Geographic Channel. The pillar of smoke could be seen from 50 miles away.

Gusts of wind bring ash and smoke into Haifa. Residents of some streets closest to the flames are evacuated. The man at the meat counter in the supermarket jokes with me; if the wind changes direction he will be holding a special sale on barbecued chickens that will never need to be put in an oven.

But it is hard to keep a sense of humor in the midst of Israel’s worst-ever natural disaster, one that has claimed the lives of more than 40 Israelis. Besides a bus full of prison service cadets on their way to help evacuate a prison, the victims include a Haifa teenager who had long served as a volunteer fireman with one of the brigades, and Haifa chief of police Ahuva Tomer, a courageous woman who came to Israel from the USSR as an infant.

The Bulgarian firefighters take a breather and rest under a tree that has survived. A sudden breeze makes a small, smoking stack of leaves near us emit some flames a few inches high. For the Bulgarians it is not worth bothering with. I decide to contribute my own effort to this international fight against the Carmel fire and extinguish the little flames the way Boy Scouts put out campfires. The Bulgarians smile and applaud.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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