Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fire in Haifa

This week was one of the most difficult experiences I have had, apart from wars. We have been having unusually dry and windy weather. After a long, hot summer, this weather created perfect fire conditions, particularly in areas with trees and vegetation, and a series of fires broke out all over the country. On Thursday the fires reached Haifa.

It was about ten o'clock in the morning when I noticed a strong smell of smoke. I looked out of the window and saw ash floating in the wind. I quickly closed all the windows and checked the news sites. They were reporting a fire elsewhere in Haifa, and it took a while for them to report that there was also a fire quite close to our home. I then found out that they were saying our road was being evacuated. I didn't really know what to do, and since I had an idea that when you are told to evacuate you just leave, without wasting time packing and saving precious possessions, I did just that.

Smoke coming from the east
I put my cat Eleni into her carrier and went out to the street, with just the clothes I was wearing and my usual everyday backpack. I walked down to the main road, where people were starting to gather. The traffic was bad, and the police had started blocking some roads. Parents were trying to get their children out of the local schools and kindergartens. There was chaos, and the smoke was increasing, so I decided to walk away from the smoke, down the main road.

 As I walked, I could see the smoke coming from the direction of my home. I tried to get away, sometimes stopping to check the news, talk to people on the phone or by text messages, and take photos. I had to take a break every now and then to rest my arms. Carrying a cat in a carrier is not easy over long distances. I saw a few other people with cat carriers, and more with dogs. After a while, the news site reported that an evacuation centre had been opened at the Haifa Auditorium, where I have seen many concerts and films and ceremonies. This was in the direction I was heading anyway, so I decided to go there.

Smoke in Haifa
I arrived after a walk I later found was 4 kilometers long. The volunteers from the municipality took the details of everyone who arrived, and asked people to let them know if they left so that they would have a record in case people were looking for each other. I sat in the auditorium lobby with Eleni in her carrier, and waited to see what would happen. They provided water and sandwiches. After a while, they brought in the residents of some retirement homes, and they were the main groups in the evacuation centre. It was later reported that 80,000 residents were asked to evacuate their homes, but only about 700 people went to the various evacuation centres around the city. Most people made their own way to stay with friends or relatives outside the risk areas or in other towns.
Firefighter plane above Haifa
 During this time, I was waiting to see what Ivor was doing. He had been evacuated from the university. The bus he caught was moving very slowly because of the solid traffic jam, so he got off and started walking. He soon got to an area full of smoke, and decided not to go any further. He waited around for a while. It became apparent that we would not be going home that night. The retirement home residents who were not collected by relatives were taken to a hotel, and some stayed overnight in the auditorium. Various people offered us a place to stay overnight, and we chose to go to the closest place, in Nesher. Eventually Ivor walked in another direction and managed to get a bus. After having a very low battery on his phone, he was finally able to recharge it at the bus station, and then contacted our friends in Nesher and arranged for them to pick him up and then come to pick Eleni and me up from the auditorium.

 It was good to get out of the evacuation centre after about 6 hours and spend an evening with friends, alternating between watching the news and trying to distract ourselves from it. Our friends had two dogs and since Eleni doesn't get on with dogs, they took them to stay with relatives so Eleni would be comfortable. We had bought some cat food on the way, and they borrowed a litter box for Eleni. We slept in our clothes on mattresses on the floor. This discomfort didn't bother me as much as not knowing whether we would have a home to return to.

On Friday morning we waited for the authorities to say everyone who had been evacuated could return home. We were relieved to come back in the afternoon and find our home undamaged, though some buildings further up the road and down the hillside had reportedly been damaged or completely destroyed.

 Today we went for a walk up our road and around the area. The closest fire damage to us was a tree about 200 meters away. I wanted to see what had happened in the area, not out of prurient curiosity, but as a form of coming to terms with the anxiety I had experienced, so see what could have happened. We didn't see the houses that were damaged, because to do that we would have had to go down stairs into their property. Most of them were not visible from the road.

Used fire hoses abandoned up our road
Remains of a motorbike up our road

Burned trees down the hill from our road
Burned bench

The lessons I have learned from this experience: First, it would be worth having a small emergency bag packed and ready. This should contain a change of clothes, basic toiletries, bottled water, and a phone charger. I was grateful for the offers of help and for people getting in touch to see if I was safe. I was also grateful that nobody was killed in the fires, and it did seem that the firefighters did a good job and coordinated well. The evacuation was less efficient than it could have been, but it seemed that most people sought help from family and friends rather than from the authorities. Several countries sent firefighters and firefighter planes or vehicles to help with the efforts.

We are now waiting for the fires in other parts of the country to be put out. This is why we always want it to rain as early as possible in the autumn or winter. People in rainy countries don't often understand how important it is to get rain in a dry country, where there is no significant rain for 8-9 months of the year. Lack of rain is a serious issue for us, both for our agriculture and because it creates an increased risk of fires, such as the Carmel Forest fire almost exactly six years ago.

There have also been reports that some of the fires were started deliberately, and some people started calling it "arson terrorism". A few suspects have been arrested. Even if this is true, making public declarations about terrorism only serves to incite more hatred and distrust at a time when we should all be working together. Haifa is famed for its coexistence, and the Israeli Arab community as a whole has been offering help to those who have lost their homes. Obviously, most Arabs disapprove of burning down cities. Even Turkey and the Palestinian Authority sent firefighters to help, despite any political disagreements. There have also been fires in Arab areas and in the Palestinian Authority territories, and it seems unlikely that all or even half of the fires were arson.

In emergency situations, it seems that some people focus on survival and become hostile and suspicious, while others want to help and maintain social cohesion. We all live in this world together, and nobody benefits from watching it burn. I would like to thank and congratulate those who helped others, offered to help others, and focused on the positive.