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Now send and gather all of Israel to Me on Mount Carmel….Then the fire of the Lord fell and devoured the sacrifice and the wood and the stones and the dust and the water. — Kings I 18: 19, 38
“Carmel” means the orchard of God in Hebrew.
The 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 firefighters just came down from the command center at the University of Haifa. His colleagues are amused that an aging professor from the same university wants to accompany them. One tells Mikhail to explain to me that he wants to come back later to be a student in my university. A religious couple from Haifa comes out of the bushes carrying large boxes of sufganiyot, Hannuka cakes, and distributes them to the firefighters, thanking each of them personally with a “Spaseeba!”
All around us the brush and trees are smoking. Every gust of wind stirs up ash. Countless fire-fighting 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 all of the campus security staff speak and joke with them freely in Russian, and when they see so many posters on billboards 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 Bunyon, and seems capable of blowing out forest fires with only his breath.
These were not the Hannuka 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. Friends and relatives from around the country call and offer us sanctuary if we need it. It feels a lot like the summer of 2006, when Haifa was the target of hundreds of rockets fired by Hezb’Allah terrorists during the Lebanese War. 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 never even had to be put into the oven. We are all sold out of marshmallows, he adds.
But it was hard to keep a sense of humor in the midst of Israel’s worst-ever natural disaster, one in which over 40 Israelis died in the flames. Besides the bus full of prison service cadets, the victims included a 16-year old Haifa boy who had long served as a volunteer fireman with one of the brigades. He was overcome after he rushed into the conflagration with his colleagues. Another victim was the Haifa Chief of Police, a courageous 52-year old woman, Ahuva Tomer, who died from burns. She was born in the USSR and came to Israel alone as an infant. But do not expect her courage and ordeal to arouse any sympathy from radical feminists. They are too busy cheering on the Hamas terrorists.
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