"I took what I could see," said Ella Davidov, who had to evacuate her home in Nof HaGalil on Friday morning, as huge tongues of fire licked the forest next to her porch. “We took towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste and soap, as well as our passports, ID cards, silver and gold. That’s the truth.”
”I woke up in the morning to the smell of smoke. I went out for a cigarette and saw black smoke rising from Churchill Forest. Despite everything, I remained calm,” Xena, Ella's oldest daughter, reported. “After an hour, I went up to the roof again, and suddenly I understood the situation. The panic started when we saw the fire approaching my uncle's house at the end of the street, and very quickly we heard a patrol car on the street, asking us to evacuate .”
Fires broke out around Israel early last week after several days of extreme heat. A major fire erupted in the mixed town Nof HaGalil, which is directly above the dominantly Arab city Nazareth, last Friday and Saturday. 13 firefighting teams battled the fires, along with an airplane dumping water on the flames from above. 6,500 residents fled or were evacuated from the fire which broke out in the nearby forest and spread to the city’s southern neighborhoods.
“If there had been no spray plane, the house would have burned down," says Xena, who expressed her appreciation for the quick organization of the city, the volunteers and the rescue teams.
Ella Davidov and her family immediately left the house when the fires broke out, arriving on Friday afternoon at the Plaza Hotel, which was slowly filling up with 400 city residents evacuating from their homes, as well as dozens of volunteers and municipal workers.
"We were optimistic, and thought we would return home that night, but we were surrounded by a forest and did not want to take the risk. We weren’t given permission to return because of the smoke," said Xena. "We have to say well done to the volunteers and the municipality. They immediately organized refreshments and drinks, popsicles, games for the children.”
We drove around with vehicles that made announcements in Arabic, Russian and Hebrew in the relevant neighborhoods"
"Thank God our house was not damaged, only the garden below us,” Ella said.
"Firefighters went tree by tree”
"The incident started at 07:30 in the morning and developed," describes Doron Kadosh, the Northern District Operations Officer in the Fire and Rescue District.
120 firefighters battled the flames for a day and a half, with assistance from fire stations across the country, joined by police forces, local municipality workers, Magen David Adom staff and Home Front Command soldiers. There were 138 fires in total across the northern region, according to Kadosh, making it harder for fire fighters to operate as affectively as they could in Nof HaGalil.
“A special team has been set up to investigate the matter and it is in progress, so it is not yet possible to say what caused the fires. Let's just say that yesterday was a very hot day, and just one person throwing a cigarette away is enough,” said Kadosh in response to some suggestions that the fires could have been started by arson as possible terror attacks.
Kadosh reported no deaths or severe injuries and some property damage, with eight houses burning to the ground, two firefighters suffering from extreme dehydration, and several people suffering from smoke inhalation.
“The firefighters went tree by tree and extinguished the fire so that it would not resume – this is Sisyphean work in light of the weather conditions,” he said.
"Arabs saved Jews and Jews saved Arabs"
"I'm not really surprised," says Dr. Shukri Awada, the deputy mayor of Nof HaGalil, about the cooperation between the two communities in the city in dealing with the incident.
"I live here in the city, and have been a member of the city council for 12 years. What is happening in the country is the opposite of Nof HaGalil – Arabs live alongside Jews. These are not just empty slogans, every society has its racists, but here, everyone lives in peace."
Awada says that 750 food parcels were delivered from the Arab neighborhoods, along with visits by Knesset members from the Joint List (a political alliance of the main Arab-majority political parties in Israel).
Possibly, the difference lies in the town's leadership. Nof HaGalil mayor Ronen Plot spoke of the mobilization of the neighboring regional councils, Arab and Jewish, rural and urban, for disaster relief. He also spoke of help coming from the Tel Aviv Yafo municipality, in the form of a donation of 100,000 shekel to buy food for the residents. It seems that the Nof HaGalil municipality is asking itself how best to serve the residents of the town, making sure to provide for its residents' needs and bridge gaps between different communities.
"Everyone asked what I needed, the Prime Minister called, and the Minister of Public Security was here. The Minister of Education promised that 400 computers would be distributed to children here [so they can participate in distance learning],” Plot said.
"Arab volunteers rescued Jews and Jews went to rescue Arabs," Plot proclaimed in response to reports of arson.
"Ever since corona started, I see everyone here working hand in hand,” he continued. “The [Arab] residents of the city are citizens in every way – do you know what mobilization of the Arab public was like in the first wave? Food trucks came here, truck after truck, from all the shops’ warehouses. I am a right-wing man, but I am an honest man, and I say that what is happening here is hand in hand."
What is happening in the country is the opposite of Nof HaGalil"
"If someone set fire intentionally, you should roast shawarma on them," Awada laughed. "Does anyone want to damage his own home? 80% of the houses directly damaged belong to the Arab population.”
"Residents came with their pets, they also need to be taken care of"
Plot did not rest during the time of the fire itself. He dealt with the event with a dedicated team of city employees, including the Deputy Mayor Awada, and Iris Bublil, Director of the Welfare and Social Services Department.
"It should be taken into account that this was a Friday, a holiday, during corona and a lockdown," Plot explained. "Across the city, there are 180 corona patients and hundreds of people in quarantine. This is an event that had no work plan."
"We sent a text message to the residents that whoever needed to be evacuated would be evacuated, and we drove around with vehicles that made announcements in Arabic, Russian and Hebrew in the relevant neighborhoods," said Plot.
For the purpose of rescuing the people from the houses, dozens of volunteers were recruited from various organizations, including the urban kibbutz Mish'ol of the Machanot HaOlim movement. They helped the residents, many of them elderly people, to get out of their houses safely.
Apart from the Plaza Hotel, three other centers were opened to receive the evacuees, and with speedy organization, they began to take care of all the needs that came up, including pet care.
We organized to help those who needed it. Everyone has been evacuated, there is no separation between sectors and classes"
"Residents came with their pets, we had to worry about their food as well, we had to take care of everything," says Plot, who, during the first hour of receiving people at the Plaza, crossed the road to the nearby grocery store and emptied the snack shelves for the evacuees. "After all, the hotel had been closed for half a year, there was no food. We started providing packages with dry food."
Amir Hanoch from the municipality's Education Department, is responsible for the transportation system, including during times of emergency. He stood at the exit of the hotel, asking the people leaving if they had a way to get back to their home, and directed those in need to a minibus that arrived as a donation.
"We know how to give good service to the residents of the city and provide solutions in unconventional situations," he said. "I’m glad we finished the incident with no casualties. Property can be replaced."
They asked on WhatsApp who was willing to volunteer, so I came"
Saad Diab, 37, the Plaza Hotel's events and conferences director, who is officially on unpaid leave due to the COVID-19 crisis, came from his house straight to the hotel.
"We were closed in March, and when we were told of the need, we had to lend a hand, we prepared the rooms and started accepting people. I saw a lot of anxiety and scared people, like it was the end of the world,” he said.
"They asked on the youth center's WhatsApp group who was willing to volunteer, so I came," said Eli Makarov, a fresh release from Givati brigade and a native of the city, whose parents immigrated from Belarus.
"Yesterday I was at the Berkowitz community center, and this morning I arrived at the Plaza. We were told that volunteers were needed to distribute food to the rooms. We did all sorts of little things like helping grandmas get things out of the house, and reassuring kids,” Makarov explained.
“Once the firefighters took control of the fire, people calmed down, but the challenge was with the adults. It's a city of immigrants and new olim, so it’s lucky I speak fluent Russian," laughs Makarov. "A city full of good people, who love to help and be there for each other."
Lilach Rose-Vagshal, 50, from Kibbutz Mish'ol of the Machanot HaOlim movement, says that when she called the firefighters in the morning, they already knew about the incident.
"We started thinking about what we needed to do to protect ourselves. We realized that the fire was far away, and we organized to help those who needed it,” she said. “At times like this, you see the strength, people who get involved and come to help. Everyone has been evacuated, there is no separation between sectors and classes."
About 40 people from Mish'ol were involved in a variety of tasks around the city during the fires. The Jewish-Arab community of which Mish'ol is a part of, the Bustan community, also pitched in.
It's a city of immigrants and new olim, so it’s lucky I speak fluent Russian. A city full of good people, who love to help and be there for each other"
"The urban kibbutz is an integral part of the volunteer system in the city, we really relied on them in the first lockdown. They are full partners and a significant part of the city," said Iris Bublil, director of the Welfare and Social Services Department.
"We collected data and identified unique needs. For those with chronic diseases, we contacted the Ministry of Health and brought their medications at night. We made sure that the invalid patients were referred to the hospitals," she added of her department's work. "A team of social workers came at the last minute to meet the variety of needs. Fortunately, there have been no extreme cases yet – people were still in a state of survival.”
Kerem, Gilad and Oz of the Kapah family came to the Plaza hotel and offered their help as well.
"People stood panicking in the street and did not know what to do," Kerem says of the fire. "We asked who needed help evacuating, many spoke only Russian, so we did not really understand each other, but we offered water from our car and tried to calm people down.”
"There are a lot of volunteers and there are lots of people who can help. Volunteering is connected to life here in the city,” Oz, the father of the family, added.