First responders from Hatzolah of Los Angeles have been very busy in these past two weeks as the fires blazing across southern California continue to devastate the area. The organization’s volunteers have spent their time evacuating the elderly from Jewish nursing facilities and helping other agencies move their residents to safety in addition to their other medical response tasks.
Jewish residents who live in the affected areas have waited as long as possible before giving in to the inevitable and leaving their homes. In the case of Rabbi Mordechai Nemtzov, the spiritual leader of Chabad of Ojai Valley, it was indeed a very last-minute decision, taken when the flames were barely a half-mile from his home — and he returned as soon as possible to check on his congregants.
The rabbi left with his family, taking the synagogue’s Torah scrolls, some of their holy books and their silver with them. Upon his return trip with water bottles and other support, he learned that at least two members had already lost their homes to the wildfire; they escaped with their lives but little else.
A number of Jewish schools were also forced to close as the smoke and junk in the area made it increasingly difficult to breathe. Among the schools that were temporarily closed last week were Valley Torah High School, Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshivah Ketanah of Los Angeles.
There are also a number of synagogues in Santa Barbara, including a Young Israel Orthodox Jewish congregation on the Mesa and a Chabad congregation, that are still in danger.
U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency last Friday in response to the fires, paving the way for federal agencies to help coordinate relief efforts in California.
The wildfires are continuing to burn after having already destroyed an area larger than New York City, according to a statement by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). The blaze, which began December 4 and is making its way across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, is now the fifth largest wildfire in the state’s history and is only about 25 percent contained, state officials said.
The blaze has so far incinerated 921 buildings, including at least 700 homes. At least 238,500 acres of land – more than 372 square miles (965 square kilometers) – have been razed.
It has already prompted the evacuation of some 230,000 residents in the state; hundreds of schools have been closed, and the flames now threaten another 18,000 buildings in their path with new evacuations taking place.
Worse, the U.S. National Weather Service has predicted more “red flag” weather conditions, with the Santa Ana winds having picked up again on Thursday, creating extreme fire danger for much of southern California. Humidity of less than 10 percent is forecast through Friday.