At 9 a.m. on November 24, I began to smell smoke and the smell of things burning. Simultaneously I began to receive calls on my United Hatzalah emergency phone about a large fire outside of the Paz Bridge, located near the central fire and rescue building in Haifa.
I raced out of my house on my ambucycle to respond to the emergency calls that were emanating from the nearby Givat Oranim neighborhood.
I arrived to Givat Oranim and was nearly paralyzed with fear as I saw the fire climb the hill toward the east, where the neighborhood of Ramot Sapir is located. The image was a hard one to stomach, even for experienced rescue personnel. When a large fire grabs hold of the neighborhood where you grew up, and you watch your childhood memories go up in flames, it is very tough to watch. As the fire drew closer to my own house it became that much harder. I didn’t believe the fire would get as far as my own home.
Later in the morning the smoke began billowing toward my own neighborhood. I raced home, turned off the gas lines and all the electricity, and closed the gas balloons. I called my wife, Tal, and asked her to leave work and return home. She picked up our daughter Leah from kindergarten and headed home.
At that point I still didn’t believe there was a direct threat to our house and our neighborhood, but people began to evacuate, carrying some of their belongings with them. I received more emergency calls. I responded to one such call together with Moshe Adler, the chapter head of United Hatzalah Haifa region. We found a 40-year-old man who was unconscious and having severe respiratory problems. No ambulances were available as the entire area was jammed up with traffic and closed off.
Another medic, Yigal Maor, joined us. We checked the unconscious individual for any other physiological ailments and then gave him high flow oxygen. Yigal put the patient in his own car while Moshe and I attempted to clear a path for his evacuation to the Carmel Medical Center. The patient needed to be intubated and receive respiratory assistance immediately. After a very difficult ride we were able to get the patient to the shock treatment center at the hospital.
It was approaching 1 p.m. I saw that the valley by the street where I live was burning. This was when I understood the danger to my own home and the homes of my neighbors. I raced to my house and what greeted me will never leave my mind. Our backyard was ablaze. The storage unit, which we had just built the week before and filled with everything we couldn’t find room for in our house, was burning.
I grabbed the garden hose and attempted to put out the fire there as well as the fire in our neighbors’ backyards in order to prevent the flames from advancing to our houses. I fought the fire until the water pressure began to dwindle. The water main to our house had begun to melt due to the intense heat.
A short time later, four other United Hatzalah volunteers arrived to help put out the flames that threatened my home and the homes of my neighbors. At 4:30, firefighters were finally able to arrive and they quenched what was left of the flames. About an hour and a half later, the firefighters had finally managed to put out the fires threatening our neighborhood.
I headed over to the mobile command center that had been set up by United Hatzalah in Haifa. The director, Moshe Teitelbaum, asked whether my family needed anything and offered us a place to stay. The organization replaced my depleted medical equipment and gave my ambucycle a tune-up on the spot. I was invited to eat, something I hadn’t done all day long. I ate a few slices of pizza and then headed to my family at the safe location to which they’d been evacuated.
We couldn’t sleep that night, thinking of all the medics and emergency personnel still involved in the battle for our beautiful city of Haifa, of the fire that refused to be put out, of our green forests that provided us with so much, and of our neighbors who lost everything dear to them.
The next morning I went with a fellow EMT to see the house. The sight was a very difficult one for all of us. The blackened rooms bore down on us. As our neighbors began to return home we all took solace in the unity of our tragedy and began to work together to figure out who to call and how to handle the situation. How do we rebuild what was lost? How do we restore water and electricity to our homes? Where could people stay in the interim?
My friends from United Hatzalah never ceased to call and offer assistance. Fellow EMS personnel provided food and blankets for Shabbat. People from as far away as the Golan and Jerusalem offered us places to stay for the weekend. We were overwhelmed with love and attention.
While we are still crying from the tragedy, our eyes are somewhat dried from knowing we will not have to go through this alone. We have an entire organization – 3,000 volunteers and staffers – standing behind me, my family, and my neighbors. When United Hatzalah is involved, no one is alone, and I am incredibly thankful for that.
We have begun restoring our homes to what they were, and I wish to thank all those who stood with us in our time of crisis.Doron Shafir