One Month Later, Israelis Reclaim Lives and a Blackened Forest

One Month Later, Israelis Reclaim Lives and a Blackened Forest

10 January 2011

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Israel — When the flames from a quickly-spreading brush-fire raced across the dry forests in Israel’s Carmel region, early assessments were hopeful that the blaze would quickly be put out. But then a bus carrying Prisons Service workers as swept up in the conflagration. The driver and 37 of his passengers perished that first day, and the fire raged for several more.

“This was no ordinary fire,” Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yehuda Dunin of Haifa remarked soon after the last flames were put out with the help of an international team spanning three continents. “Now comes the hard part.”

A month after the Carmel Fire claimed 44 lives, sent 17,000 people fleeing their homes and torched more than 12,000 acres, Israelis from all walks of life and their government representatives are collectively remembering a natural disaster that laid bare the country’s inability to fight a massive forest fire. Today, recriminations and accusations echo throughout all halls of power, while non-profit efforts – backed by public and private money – help people get back on their feet.

In the midst of the fire, Dunin, director of Chabad of the Carmel, dispatched volunteers to boost firefighters’ morale and assist evacuees. When the flames subsided, the Chabad Terror Victims Project disbursed grants to those families, Jewish and non-Jewish, who lost loved ones in the blaze.

Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, the organization’s director, said that everyone is deeply in pain.

“It’s a tough situation,” Swerdlov said of those who lost loved ones. “Only 30 days have gone by and many families are still trying to deal will the shock.”

Just days ago, grieving survivors forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop short a speech about the recovery effort; they blame members of his Cabinet for cutting budgets that could have paid for firefighting equipment. (On Sunday, the Cabinet approved 800 million shekels for emergency preparedness.)

Late last month, Jewish Federations of North America announced that it would disperse $2.4 million to victims of the fire; on the ecological side, the Jewish National Fund predicted that it will take close to $10 million to replant the charred forest, known before the fire as among the country’s most scenic regions.

At the Chabad Terror Victims Project, Rabbi Menachem Kutner talked about visiting with those whose children, siblings and spouses were among those trapped in the burning bus or cut down by the flames as they tried to save others.

In Dimona recently, Kutner and Rabbi Yisroel Gellis, a local Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, met with two affected families, part of a continued project to deliver 3,600 shekel checks to survivors.

“We entered the home of the Suissa family,” recounted Kutner. “The bereaved brothers introduced us to their mourning mother, and we learned that they were living a double tragedy. In addition to the demise of her son in the fire, only three years ago, her husband died of a heart attack a short time after witnessing a terror attack in a shopping mall.”

Last week, attendees of the annual regional convention of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries toured the blackened expanse of what used to be towering pine trees. They arrived at a parking area in the Ofer Forest, where they met a forester in a fire extinguishing vehicle.

“Everyone was very moved,” noted Alon Gutter, a guide with the Jewish National Fund. “Afterward, everyone put on gloves and used secateurs and saws to contribute to the forest’s renewal by pruning [remaining] trees and removing residue.”

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