By Doron Shafir
First Person 

Rescuing residents from the Haifa fires: A personal story of heroism and tragedy

 

Doron standing in his backyard after the fire.

Doron Shafir,

Paramedic United Hatzalah

On Thursday, Nov. 24, Israel's national volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) organization United Hatzalah mobilized over 600 volunteers from around the country to assist fire and rescue teams with evacuations and firefighting across the country.

During the rescue and evacuation operations in Haifa, one United Hatzalah volunteer paramedic, Doron Shafir, had his own home catch fire while he was helping others evacuate from their homes and buildings. Doron spent the entirety of Thursday morning rescuing the elderly and those unable to walk from their houses. He participated in the evacuation of numerous high-rise buildings before recognizing that the fires were encroaching upon the neighborhood in which his own family and neighbors resided.

The following is a letter from Doron that he wrote after the fires in Haifa were under control:

At 9 a.m. I began to smell smoke and the smell of things burning. Simultaneously I began to receive calls on my United Hatzalah emergency phone that there were reports of a large fire outside of the Paz Bridge, located near the central fire and rescue building in Haifa. I raced out of my house on my ambucylce to respond to the emergency calls that were emanating from the Givat Oranim neighborhood located nearby.


When I arrived Givat Oranim, I was nearly paralyzed with fear as I saw the fire climb the hill towards the east where the neighborhood of Ramot Sapir is located. The image was a very hard one to stomach, even for experienced rescue personnel who are familiar with witnessing tough situations. When a large fire grabs hold of the neighborhood where you grew up, and you watch your childhood memories go up in flames it is very tough to witness. As the fire drew closer to my own house it became that much harder. I didn't believe that the fire would get as far as my own home. After evacuating numerous people from their homes I was interviewed by Channel 2 news.

Later in the morning the smoke began billowing toward my own neighborhood. I raced home, turned off the gas lines, all the electricity and closed the gas balloons. I called my wife Tal and asked her to leave work and return home. She picked up our daughter Leah from kindergarten and headed back home. At this point, I still didn't believe that there was a direct threat to our house and our neighborhood, but people began to evacuate carrying some of their belongings with them.  I received more emergency calls and responded to help others in need of assistance in the area. One individual was unconscious and another had difficulty breathing over on Freud Street which was not too far away. I headed over together with Moshe Adler, the Chapter Head of United Hatzalah Haifa region. When we arrived we found a 40-year-old man who was unconscious and having severe respiratory problems. No ambulances were available as the entire area was jammed up with traffic and closed off.


Another medic by the name of Yigal Maor joined us. We checked the unconscious individual for any other physiological ailments and then gave him high flow oxygen. Yigal took the patient in his own car, while Moshe and I attempted to clear a path for his evacuation to the Carmel Medical Center. The patient needed to be intubated and receive respiratory assistance immediately. After a very difficult ride, we were able to get the patient to the shock treatment center at the hospital.    

It was approaching 1 p.m. and I saw that the valley by the street where I live was burning. This was when I understood that there was a danger to my own home and the homes of my neighbors. I raced home and what greeted me will never leave my mind. Our backyard was ablaze. The storage unit, which we had just built last week and filled with everything that we couldn't find room for in our house was burning. I grabbed the garden hose and attempted to put out the blazing storage unit in my own backyard, as well as those of the neighbors in order to prevent the fire from advancing to our houses. I fought with the flames until the water pressure began to dwindle. The water main to our house had begun to melt due to the intense heat.  


A short time later, four other volunteers from United Hatzalah arrived at my house to help me try to put out the flames that were encroaching on my home and the homes of my neighbors. At 4:30 p.m., firefighters were finally able to arrive and helped us quench what was left of the flames. At 6 p.m. the firefighters were able to finally put out the fires that were threatening our neighborhood. I headed over to the mobile command center that had been set up by United Hatzalah in Haifa, and the director, Moshe Teitelbaum, asked about whether my family needed anything and offered us a place to stay. The organization replaced my depleted medical equipment and gave my ambucycle a tune-up on the spot. I was invited to eat, something that I hadn't done all day long. I ate a few slices of pizza that were offered and then headed to my family who had previously evacuated to a safe location.

We couldn't sleep that night. Thoughts of all the medics and emergency personnel still involved in the battle for our beautiful city of Haifa, of the fire that refused to be put out, of our green forests that provided us with so much, and of our neighbors who lost everything dear to them.

The next morning I went with a fellow EMT to see the house. The sight was a very difficult one for all of us. The blackened rooms bore down on us. As our neighbors began to return home we all took solace in the unity of our tragedy and began to work together to figure out who to call and how to handle the situation. How do we rebuild what was lost? How do we restore water and electricity to our homes for our families? Where can people stay in the interim?

TV crews came to interview us for whatever stations they were working for, and my friends from United Hatzalah never ceased to call and offer their condolences and assistance. Fellow EMS members came and offered food and blankets for the Shabbat holiday that was fast approaching. People called, came over and brought food and offered us places to stay for the weekend from as far away as the Golan and Jerusalem. We were overwhelmed with love and attention. While we are still crying from the tragedy, our eyes are somewhat dried by knowing that we will not have to go through this alone. We have an entire organization, 3,000 volunteers and staff strong, that is standing behind me, my family and my neighbors. When United Hatzalah is involved, no one is alone, and I am incredibly thankful for that.

At this point, we are restoring our homes to what they were, and I wish to thank all of those who stood with us in our time of crisis.  

The main epicenter of the organization's activities was focused in Haifa, where more than 90,000 people needed to be evacuated including Doron and his family. Volunteer EMS personnel also assisted firefighters and rescue services in evacuating the towns of Beit Meir, Neve Ilan, Nataf, Rishon Letzion, Halamish and Neve Tzuf over the course of the weekend.

 

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