After Haifa’s Fires Put Out The Real Story Begins

Haifa’s fire story, like Israel’s story, is one of renewal and rebuilding. The fire totally destroyed over 500 homes, leaving over 1500 residents with no place to return as the city got the all clear. But that is only where this story begins. The blackened patches of earth will not stay black forever and the homes will be rebuilt. This is the first article in a series.

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I live in a neighbourhood in Haifa that was not affected by the fire and I was on a trip to the Negev while parts of the city I love were going up in flames. I returned after calm had been restored and those who could, were returning to their homes, while those who could not, had to start piecing their lives together out of the ashes. On Wednesday morning, November 30th, a week after the fires had started, I decided to drive around the city and see what footprints the fire had left on Haifa.

Driving up to the French Carmel for my Pilates session from Bat Galim, where I live, was no different yesterday than any other time I had ever gone by that route. Just about every road longer than a couple of blocks curves its way around the contours of the hills on which Haifa grew. And around each curve is a new vista, whether that is a view of the Mediterranean Sea or of the valleys between the hills, or of the the coastal plain that reaches from the beach and deeper east and north of Haifa to other towns and cities. It is a city-with-a-view-from-almost-anywhere.

Haifa's fires - area untouched by fire
Neighbourhoods of Haifa untouched by the fires. Photo by Sheri Oz

After Pilates class, I drove toward Old Romema, one of the places the fire had struck. As soon as I neared the last roundabout before reaching Pica Street, a major road connecting several neighbourhoods, I thought I smelled the smell of a dead fire. A campfire leaves a very slight dead-fire odour when you extinguish it and this was unmistakeable. At the same time, I wondered if I was just imagining it, if my mind was playing tricks on me. The fire had been out for days . . . was it possible for the smell to linger this long?

I was soon to discover that, whereas each curve in Haifa’s roads generally brings a new view, it was now either to bring a new smell that would forewarn me of the blackened hills I was about to see or a clean smell that made it seem there were never any fires at all. And at the entrance to some streets, there were barricades and a guard questioning what business brings you, an effort at keeping vandalism of abandoned properties to a minimum.

Destruction caused by Haifa's fires

I stopped to take a few photos and if people were around, I introduced myself as a blogger, something that seems to indicate a worthy profession these days. An employee from Bezeq (the telephone company) told me that he is busy replacing and repairing the lines; he is impressed with the way all the various infrastructure companies are coordinated in their activities in the field: Lessons learned from the Carmel tragedy. He was not the only one to make a comment like that.

A man with a dog told me that their Internet service was renewed only the day before. Luckily their cellphone data package provided sufficient volume to handle hot-spotting the couple’s computers for a while. The fire caught them at work. His wife, a practitioner of animal-assisted therapy, had their dog with her but the two cats were trapped in their apartment until the city let residents go home again. They found the cats hiding under a blanket, something that perhaps saved their lives by filtering the smoke-filled air.

Two construction workers who had begun repairing the roof on one apartment took a break to carry off 50-cm-long logs left by the clean-up crew who chopped the trunks of burned trees. A truck-load of logs would have cost them a lot of money and with winter approaching, the logs will be put to good use in the wood-burning stove or heater.

Here is a video I put together from my short tour. It is an amateurish film, I warn you ahead of time. But you might like to see it just to see the wild boars at the end that I magically caught just as I was about to close the camera.

There was no rancour in the tone of anyone with whom I spoke. Not a representative random sample, I know. But the feeling in the air was: we will overcome! The blackened hills made me feel sick to my stomach, but you could see the preparations for renewal and rejuvenation and I could almost imagine the budding new branches that will poke their way out when spring comes in a few months. We will probably even see more wildflowers than usual, with the ground now open to the direct sun.

I have always believed that we Jews are like the Phoenix. We are like the salamander. We are like Wile E. Coyote. They try to burn us and we rise up from the ashes. They try to cut us up and we regenerate our limbs. They try to flatten us and we puff right back up again. Give us time to lick our wounds, orient ourselves and wake up to a new day. We ARE a stiff-necked people, stubborn as Hell.

This article originally appeared on Israel Diaries.

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