An Incredible Response

Israel is assessing the widespread destruction and tallying the damages caused by five days of wildfires which burned across the country. Strong winds are still expected for another 24 hours, but all fires are now under control, and the forecast is for considerably improved weather conditions from Tuesday, including a high probability of rain later in the week.

Despite the destruction, the almost remarkable take-away headline is the fact that there were no fatalities. A total of 180 people were treated by medical staff, but most of these were for minor injuries mainly from smoke inhalation. Still, the toll was great as 2,500 firefighters fought an unprecedented 480 blazes over the five-day period. Thousands of homes were damaged and hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate. Multiple schools were evacuated, as were two prisons. Rail lines were cut, many major roads were temporarily closed, and water and electricity supplies were interrupted. A total of 32,000 acres of natural forest land has also been burned.

The worst fires took place in Israel’s third largest city, Haifa, where some 60,000 residents were evacuated and more than 1,600 Haifa residents were left homeless. You can see a number of dramatic photos published in The Guardian here.

According to Israeli authorities, the initial fires were likely caused by the extreme weather conditions. However, police and fire investigators have gathered extensive evidence suggesting that many of the later – and largest – fires were deliberately set, with the arsonists taking advantage of the high winds and dry ground. Some 35 people have so far been arrested for arson and incitement to arson.

As always, the response by all concerned – both during and after the fires – has been incredible.

In total, 2,000 Israeli firefighters were joined by 450 IDF Home Command personnel, some 70 Cypriot soldiers, around 50 American Jewish firefighters, and 41 personnel and eight fire trucks sent to Haifa by the Palestinian Authority. Fourteen Israeli firefighting planes were joined by fifteen planes from other countries. Israel has sent special thanks to the countries that contributed planes and personnel: Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Italy, Spain, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Greece, and Croatia.

Senior members of the government have promised fast and effective service to assist those who have lost their houses and will do everything necessary to maintain the remaining properties. The geographic areas affected by the fires mainly have strong local authorities who have handled the situation well. This can, in part, be attributed to Jewish Federations support over the years as well as improvements made based on lessons learned during previous times of emergency in northern Israel. 

The Jewish Agency for Israel has announced that it will provide cash grants of $1,000 to each of the estimated 700 families whose homes were either entirely destroyed or sustained structural damage making them uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Special contributions from Jewish Federations will provide funding for these grants. And a number of Agency absorption centers have taken in people evacuated from the fires, including the Amigour housing facility in Kiryat Yam, which opened its doors to provide nursing care for 22 elderly Holocaust survivors who were evacuated from their nursing facilities in Haifa.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has been focused on helping the most vulnerable victims and strengthening response and preparedness systems. They are providing targeted support – both physical and emotional – to the elderly, people with disabilities, and families at risk. JDC is also assessing improvements needed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Israel's emergency response systems, such as enhancing coordination between agencies, capacity-building, and improving service provision.

Finally, the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) is conducting a mapping of the trauma needs of smaller municipalities hit by the blazes. ITC was called in to provide trauma relief at the Carmel Hospital and evacuation centers, and to provide backup to existing welfare teams in Haifa. ITC is also considering adding another emergency call line in Hebrew and Russian which would direct people to municipal services being provided and would help identify potential trauma.   

I hope you’re proud of the incredible work our Jewish Federation and partners are undertaking, right now, on the ground. You can support our life-saving work directly through the UJA Annual Campaign here, or with a directed gift here.


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