Israel | Local

Local firefighters drop everything to help Israel battle blazes

Randy Odgen, right, who retired Dec. 5 from Mt. Lemmon Fire District, where he served as fire chief for six and a half years, helps battle a five-story apartment fire in Jerusalem on Nov. 29. All residents were evacuated safely and the fire was contained. Ogden, who retired from the Tucson Fire Department in June 2010 after 33 years of service, says of his Israel deployment, “I am privileged to end my career as I began it, running calls and hauling hoses as a firefighter.” (Arik Abouloff)

As soon as she heard about the hundreds of fires raging through Israel late last month, Marcela Donovan Hammond expected a call. Having just completed her Emergency Volunteer Project training in Israel in September  the Nogales firefighter, arson investigator and mother of six was prepared to drop everything at a moment’s notice and travel halfway around the world to battle the blaze with her colleagues.

When the phone call came, she said yes without hesitation — just like the other four Southern Arizona volunteers who joined thousands of firefighters from around the world to help their Israeli counterparts. It was 5:30 a.m., the day after Thanksgiving, and Hammond was still at the fire station, having worked through the holiday. She gathered the gear she’d need to fight both wildland and urban fires and headed home to pack.

“I had already discussed it with my family the day before because the possibility was highly likely for this to happen,” says Hammond. “My husband [a Border Patrol canine handler] is extremely supportive of the program and my commitment to it and he said, ‘That’s what we signed up to do. Not a big deal, I can handle it. Everything will be fine. Do what you gotta do.’”

Patty Vallance, center, a Greater Tucson Fire Foundation and Jewish community volunteer, with an elite tactical rescue unit of Israeli firefighters, in Ashkelon on Nov. 29. (Courtesy Patty Vallance)
Patty Vallance, center, a Greater Tucson Fire Foundation and Jewish community volunteer, with an elite tactical rescue unit of Israeli firefighters, in Ashkelon on Nov. 29. (Courtesy Patty Vallance)

In the meantime, other discussions were taking place as well. Oshrat Barel, director of the local Weintraub Israel Center, was in touch with Brig. Gen. Shmulik Friedman, chief of operations for Israel Fire and Rescue Authority and one of five top-level Israeli first responders who were in Tucson last fall through the Firefighters Beyond Borders initiative. “Yesterday, Shmulik asked me if there was any way we could connect representatives from the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry with the company that owns the Boeing 747 Super Tanker [which had been deployed in the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire],” Barel wrote in a community-wide e-blast from the Israel Center on Nov. 25. Greater Tucson Fire Foundation Chair Mike McKendrick and Patty Vallance, a volunteer who is active in both the Jewish community and the Fire Foundation, helped get the contact information and the Fire Foundation contributed $40,000 towards deployment. “We are pleased that the super tanker left Marana and has already landed in Israel,” Barel wrote.

Barel told the AJP, “The ability to contact Mike McKendrick on the day of Thanksgiving and ask for his help is thanks to the great relationship that the Fire Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona have had for years.”

Early Saturday morning, Nov. 26, Hammond boarded a plane with Nogales Fire Captain Pete Ashcraft, Mt. Lemmon Fire District Chief Randy Ogden and Tucson EMS Captain Bruce Avram, who had all done the EVP training together through Firefighters Beyond Borders. Joining them was Tucson Battalion Chief Kris Blume, who went to Israel with the original Firefighters Beyond Borders delegation in 2013. In Israel they were met by EVP Founder and CEO Adi Zahavi. As 40 firefighters from all over the United States arrived, they were bussed out to the fire stations that were most in need of backup.

When Hammond, Ashcraft and Ogden arrived at the firehouse in Shfar’am, about 12 miles inland from the northern city of Haifa, they found it crowded with firefighters and soldiers fatigued from working around the clock for the past week.

“They were exhausted. They had been on fragmented sleep, just a few hours here and there. One guy said, ‘I got off yesterday. I went home for a few hours and they called me back to the firehouse.’ They didn’t have any time off,” says Hammond, who was the first female firefighter from North America to train with EVP. “It was packed. There were sleeping bags and cots everywhere, because the IDF was also guarding the firehouses. So we had two or three soldiers, they were doubling up on personnel, plus the additional personnel that they requested. I was prepared to sleep anywhere, but the firefighters on duty actually were so gracious that they gave up their bedrooms for us to have their beds. They were very appreciative of the help they were receiving.”

Instead of putting the new arrivals straight to work, the crew on duty said they’d take the night shift and told the volunteers to rest after their long flight, so they’d be fresh and ready to go in the morning. The next day, they patrolled the area to look for potential flare ups, visited local schools and put out a few brushfire calls in the evening.

When Blume found out that he and Avram were stationed at Mount Carmel National Park, “I felt like I won the lottery. I remembered that station so vividly.” Not only did he remember the beautiful forests and vistas of Mount Carmel from his 2013 visit, but also the significance of the 2010 Carmel Forest Fire in terms of lives lost and lessons learned. “That was the transition moment for the Israeli Fire Service,” he recalls. Blume and Avram stayed in a conference room named in memory of Elad Riven, a 16-year-old volunteer fire scout who died fighting the 2010 fire. Blume had met Tzvia Riven, Elad’s mother, and had planted trees honoring the 44 victims of the fire. He was moved to find that the trees were still standing, unscathed by the current blaze.

The local firefighters all described being on the lookout for suspicious activity while patrolling or responding to fires. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said 40 to 50 percent of the fires were caused by arson, although dry weather conditions were also a factor. According to JTA, at least 35 people were arrested on suspicion of arson or incitement to arson, although by Dec. 10, only 10 remained in custody. JTA reported 1,700 fires that destroyed 32,000 acres of natural wilderness and hundreds of homes.

Blume described the conditions that made November’s fire especially devastating for Haifa, where, according to the Times of Israel, 527 apartments were destroyed, leaving 1,600 people homeless. “Speaking specifically to the fact that this was a terrorist incident … the nature of attack was to wait until there were warm, dry conditions with heavy wind … to start fires in places that in the fire service we call urban interfaces. It’s where you actually have wildlands, like in Malibu, very steep canyons with heavily overgrown trees and brush and shrub. From the ground level, you have material on the ground called duff, scrub oak to about chest height, then cedars, deciduous and coniferous trees that go up 60-70 feet. It’s a complete fuel profile and when fire rolls through it just rages through there. So fires start at the base of these canyons, they just race up these hills and burn right through apartment complexes and housing structures and development,” says Blume.

Many of the calls they ran were to investigate fire sightings in the ravines. “The citizenry were so well aware of what was going on, as soon as they saw the smallest things, they were calling. So we would go and check them out and extinguish them,” says Blume. They were also assigned to mop-up operations, making sure that any remaining hotspots were out cold.

On Monday, Nov. 28, as the fires in the north finally began to come under control, the Tucson crew in Shfar’am was sent to Jerusalem. “The fire service was really concerned because of all the brush and the forest that surrounds Jerusalem,” says Ogden. “If the fire had gotten into that area, it would have been very difficult to save. It’s such an important place for the whole world. It would truly be a tragedy and a disaster if anything happened there. They had so many resources dedicated to the north, that they were glad to see us come in so we could reinforce Jerusalem.”

Ashcraft went back to the Jerusalem fire station where he had trained with EVP in September. “It felt like being home, seeing the people we had trained with originally. They didn’t know we were coming. It was great to see them and see their faces light up,” he says.

After they were demobilized in Haifa, Avram and Blume were sent to Petach Tikvah, where Avram was also thrilled to meet up with the crew he had trained with in September.

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, the Southern Arizona delegation joined the rest of the American EVP volunteers at a ceremony and luncheon hosted at fire department headquarters. After lunch, they were bussed to a ceremony thanking all of the international volunteers at the Hatzor Air Base near the southern city of Be’er Sheva, in the Negev. Countries that lent a hand by sending firefighting crews and planes included Russia, Turkey, Greece, Spain, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus and Italy.

“There were so many air tankers from all over. It was great to see that kind of support that turned out. When we went to the ceremony at the army base, each time we walked up to people, even if we didn’t speak the same language, it was just a brotherhood. And that’s what firefighting is about. It was like running into old friends, people we hadn’t met before, from different countries,” says Avram.

Ogden, who retired on Dec. 5 after 40 years of service, concurs:  “Firefighters are firefighters anywhere in the world. You can just pick up one station and put it somewhere else. They speak a different language, but yet they don’t. It’s the same character, the same personality, no matter where firefighters are located.”

Meanwhile, back in Tucson, when Barel found out about the ceremony, she decided that Vallance, an organizer behind the Firefighters Beyond Borders initiative, should be there. Within 24 hours, Vallance was on a plane to Israel for the first time in her life. Due to delays, she missed the ceremony, but arrived in time to have dinner with the Tucson delegation on their last night at Friedman’s home. Excited to reconnect with her Israeli and American heroes, Vallance stayed on for a whirlwind week that included visits to the Carmel fire memorial, several fire stations and Israel’s specialty tactical rescue team.

“All involved were amazed to find out this was Patty’s first trip to Israel ever,” says Barel. “Patty did so much to connect Tucson and Israel before she even visited the country, and I can’t wait to see the results of this trip. I am happy that the Federation decided to send her. She is an amazing ambassador and there is no one that deserves it more.”

On their way back to Tucson, the firefighters were treated like heroes. At Ben Gurion Airport, Ogden says the chief of security said, “Now Israel’s going to do something for you” and proceeded to expedite their check-in. “She took us to the first class security check point, where they screen the carry-ons, and made everybody stand back and let us go through first and escorted us to the gate. That was huge, to me. That was an acknowledgement that we had done something important,” Ogden says.

The El Al flight crew also showed their gratitude by giving each of the volunteers a bottle of wine, which was confiscated by TSA when they passed through security again in the Los Angeles airport.

Although these gestures were meaningful, the firefighters say they didn’t volunteer for the glory or acknowledgement. They did it because Israel needed them. And they did it for their colleagues.

As Ogden says, “It was an honor working with the guys over in Israel. When a country like Israel calls for help, how can you say no?”

According to Friedman, the feeling is mutual. “For us, the firefighters of the EVP are part of us and so we were happy that they came very quickly and helped us. It was especially important for me to see my family members from Tucson. They helped us and warmed our hearts.”

McKendrick also points to the special partnership that has grown through Firefighters Beyond Borders: “We have now really begun to see the ripened fruits of this relationship that began initially in 2012 with the vision of Captain (Ret) Richard Johnson and Patty Vallance. One could say the partnership and goal is indelible.”

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Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a writer and editor in Tucson.