Elad Riven, 16, of Haifa joined a volunteer Israeli scout group last year composed of teenagers who work with the region’s professional firefighting service. When he saw the wildfires from his high school window last Thursday, he left school and raced to help.
“He called his mother from school and said, ‘Pack my fire bag, I’m going to go,’” said Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund.
“They never would have let him go into the fire, but he waved down a truck that was going to a fire station and on the way it was called on to save those on a bus [caught in the fire] — and it took the 16-year-old kid into an inferno,” he said.
The bus was carrying trainee prison guards to the Damon jail to help evacuate inmates.
“I saw a picture of Elad alongside the firemen trying to extinguish the flames on the bus,” Robinson said.
The wind-whipped flames — which reportedly were traveling at 100 miles per hour — soon engulfed the firefighters and Elad.
“No one knew he was there until the next day” when his body was found alongside other victims of the blaze, Robinson said.
Shimon Romach, Israel’s fire commissioner, said there are 800 volunteer fire scouts who receive training and who volunteer for two hours at a fire station each week. But he said the program’s small numbers is emblematic of Israel’s fire service — inadequate.
“We could at least triple it,” he told The Jewish Week. “If we want to have volunteers like this, we have to train them and equip them with all of the protective gear — from a helmet to the fire protective shoes. In addition, we have to have a room for them where they can be together to pass the time between fires, one that has the Internet and other things that attract young people. At fires, we let them be with us outside of a burning building but we don’t let them go inside.”
The fire scouts program now receives only $25,000 in funding, and Robinson said he is committed to seeing it increased to $100,000.
Romach said he recruits many of the fire scouts for the professional department after they complete their military service. The number that can be recruited depends on the budget.
Budgetary constraints keep the fire department to 1,500 firefighters for a country of 7.6 million.
“That is very, very low — far different from that of the U.S.,” Romach said. “Everywhere you look, the ratio of firefighters is one for every 1,000 in the population. Here, we have one firefighter for 6,500. And we have a lack of training facilities.”
Romach said he has complained “so many times that we are not prepared for our daily responsibilities and especially not for emergencies — and in Israel unfortunately emergency cases are very often.”
Romach said the fire service used to use Air Force helicopters to help fight fires, but this practice was ended in 2001 after the Air Force complained the helicopters were being damaged by the fires.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on television in recent days to promise that his government would buy two or three of the firefighting planes like those sent by Greece and Turkey to help extinguish the fire. And he promised a renovated fire department.
“I believe we will get some more money budgeted now,” Romach said. “I cannot say or define how much, but we need a half billion shekels [$138 million].”
While the fire service was battling the huge fire that consumed five million trees over more than 12,500 acres, firefighters also responded to other routine fires, such as three apartment fires in Haifa last Thursday, Romach noted.
“And unfortunately when a major fire like this occurs, there are some people who will set arson fires in different places,” he added. “On Saturday we had 40 bush fires in Israel, and we can say that 90 percent were arson for sure. In one place, police made an arrest [of an Israeli Arab].”
Asked about lessons from this experience, Romach replied: “I personally learned some lessons, and I have ordered all fire departments to study all of the lessons [they learned] and then have a meeting of the fire chiefs and operations chiefs in order to study from each other and develop a list [of changes] on a national level.”
The Jewish National Fund, which is the U.S. fundraising arm of Friends of Israel Firefighters, has pledged $10 million to help with the recovery costs of the fire, Robinson said.
He noted that it would cost between $1 million and $2 million to replace all of the equipment that was damaged, including “miles and miles of fire hoses.”
“When you fight a fire like this, it is very hot and when you have to retreat, you don’t take the fire hoses with you, you just leave them and re-establish new lines,” Robinson explained.
The fire also proved the value of the 67 mini fire trucks the department has that are taller and thinner than conventional trucks. He said they proved they could reach the fire quickly. They carry water and “chemicals that are so powerful that not as much water is needed.”
“They need 25 more of those trucks, and we are going to get them at a cost of $125,000 each,” Robinson said.
Asked about media reports that Eli Yishai, Israel’s interior minister and a member of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, previously turned down an offer of fire engines from a pro-Israel American Christian charity, Robinson said the “story is factually untrue.”
He insisted that such organizations “do contribute and we have non-Jewish friends who want to contribute and be a part of this. The shame is that some non-Jewish friends read this story. I got phone calls from many of my dear Christian friends who asked if this was true…”
After arriving in Israel Sunday to assess the damage and the need, Robinson said he was most impressed by the bravery of the firefighters and the appreciation of the Israeli public.
He said he went to Kibbutz Beit Oren in the heart of the fire zone where the blaze destroyed buildings before firefighters even arrived.
“Beit Oren is on four different hilltops,” Robinson said. “You saw where the firefighters made the decision, at a risk to their own lives, to make a stand and stop the fire. Seven buildings were lost, but they were determined not to lose more. The people there told me that they debated whether to leave, arguing that nobody would fight harder for their homes than they would. But then they saw the firefighters working as hard as they would on their own personal homes.”
He said that at each fire station he saw boxes of food brought by area residents in appreciation of the firefighters’ efforts.
“One woman brought pots and pots of food to different stations,” Robinson said. “As we were driving today, a man darted into the street carrying a box of doughnuts to a stationhouse. And when I had dinner last night with Romach, young people came to our table and started clapping. Then the owner came over and said he wanted to invite the firemen over for a free meal.”
Robinson said one of his most memorable moments was paying a shiva call Tuesday to the home of Elad Riven and speaking with his mother, Tzvia. He recalled that she told him the fire scout program had “turned my boy into a man.”
“It gave him a cause and a feeling of Zionism,” Robinson said. “I want to see that program increased. We are committed to making it happen for thousands and thousands of kids who will become the future of the Jewish people. And we’re going to put on everybody’s jacket the name of Elad, so that his spirit will live on in the future.”