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BLAZING SEASON

BLAZING SEASONLarge areas in Haifa were consumed by fires that turned the peaceful city into a war zone

November 24 is a date that Haifa will not forget anytime soon.

It was the fourth day of wildfires that spread all over the country, at the end of a long hot summer and a period of extremely dry conditions. The vegetation stood arid, brown, and brittle, the winds were wild, and the combination was disastrous. All it took to start an uncontrollable fire was a spark, and what in normal conditions could have been extinguished by a bucket of water, now quickly developed into a raging sea of flames.

Two fires erupted in the late hours of the morning, one at the bottom of the western slopes of Mount Carmel, in the area of the new Naot Peres neighborhood, the other almost exactly opposite, halfway up the eastern slope, in the area of Ramot Remez. In both cases the flames were rapidly carried up the hill on both sides, the two fires almost conjoining at the top.

Pretty soon great areas were consumed, and the police deemed necessary the evacuation of thirteen neighborhoods, as the fire encroached residential areas. The peaceful green city turned into a war zone: sixty thousand people fled their homes, turning into instant fugitives; the lucky ones had time to pack essentials and mementos and collect their pets, while the less lucky could not even get home to do that, all of them left to wonder if they even will have a home to return to.  The roads were jammed, sirens of all sorts wailed as emergency forces and reinforcements were moving in, smoke was everywhere, and above head firefighting planes were crisscrossing the sky, dropping their loads of seawater and red fire retardants. It was havoc. Airplanes and firefighters, as well as various sorts of equipment, were rushed to Haifa from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, US, France, UK, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Croatia, Russia, and PA, resolved to rescue our city from the flames and control the blazing fires.

The municipality, sadly experienced in emergency situations and by now well-trained and drilled, moved into action at the very early stages, opening eight evacuation centers, arranging hotel rooms for displaced families, operating hotlines, sending forces to the streets to aid and help and guide, and coordinating the whole operation. The fact that no life was lost and most injuries were minor and were caused from smoke inhalation, stands as proof to the efficiency of all involved.

By noon the situation seemed grim. The ceaseless wind created two funnels of dark yellowish smoke, while treacherously lifting blazing materials of all sorts and carrying them up the slopes to ignite new locations along its trail of destruction. Buildings turned into towering torches, and on top of it all firefighters were now desperately trying to fend off the fire that encircled the Romema gas station.

By the time evening was approaching, optimism was still far, as control of the situation was yet to be achieved. The rescue forces were already exhausted after four days and over a thousand fires of various scopes all over the country, and the fear was that when darkness will fall the firefighting planes will no longer be able to take part in the effort.

As darkness fell, though, the smoke turned thinner, the sky turned clearer, and while the wind was still vicious, the flames were few and relatively mild. By 22:00 it felt as if the worst part was over, and even though danger of rekindling was very much real and the fire was not yet officially declared under control, the tension eased considerably.

On the next day the evacuees were allowed to return to their homes, but many found out to their horror they no longer have a home; all their possessions, their memories, their toil, went up in smoke. What once was warm and welcoming and protective, now stood charred and devoid of all personal meaning.

175 building were damaged, 77 of which were declared hazardous; 1,784 apartments were damaged, 527 of which were declared not fit for dwelling. The damage to private buildings is estimated at 500 million shekels. The landscape was dramatically changed, as 700 acres of green vegetation now stood barren and black.

Yet not for too long. Early in the morning following the fires, burnt cars and obstacles were removed from the streets, cleaning was done wherever possible, burnt trees were already being chopped down by 18 teams, and plans for rehabilitation were already underway. After the cutting down of hazardous trees and trees that can’t be salvaged, the soil will be treated, irrigation systems will be installed and new trees of local origin will be planted, mainly non-coniferous trees, as these have proved to be flammable and combustible.

Haifa survived a ferocious fire, and although scarred, it will soon bloom and blossom more vividly than before.

Photo: i24News