Firefighters Aim to Retain Cool on Israel's Fieriest Night

Lag Ba'omer is the firefighter's busiest time of the year. On the eve of the holiday they beef up their teams and go from one bonfire to another, warning the celebrators to keep away from trees, dried-out shrubs and high-voltage wires. The next day they look out for fires that haven't been put out properly.

"This is our night," says Haifa firefighter Shimon Lahav. "Suddenly everything we've dreaded the whole year happens - in an organized way. Bonfires everywhere, with the danger that they'll spread."

Lahav, 39, has dealt with hundreds of Lag Ba'omer bonfires in his 18-year career.

"People are aware that we're professionals whose duty is to protect their lives and prevent harm to them or their property," he says. "We wish them a happy holiday and ask them very nicely to move their fire to the left or right. People know my duty as a commander is to keep them and the environment safe."

Most people adhere to the firefighters' safety rules, and in recent years public awareness has risen, Lahav says. People take better care and make greater efforts to warn their children.

"This holiday gives us a chance to get to know people and to let them get to know us, because our organization and our lives, after all, are devoted to saving lives and property," he says.

Asked if he minds not being treated as a hero, he says: "Our country is overflowing with heroes. There are soldiers and policemen. We don't get the credit, but we do receive daily positive feedback. What drives us is the daily gratitude of those we save. It's not easy being a fireman - putting yourself in danger, entering a place everyone is running away from. But it's slowly penetrating people's consciousness.

"On a visit in San Francisco I sat with a fellow firefighter and talked about work. I told him we had 35 firefighters in Haifa in charge of some 6,000 outbreaks a year. He turned white and couldn't understand how we do it. In the United States, 12 firemen are dispatched to the smallest incident in which people are trapped," Lahav says.

"With us it's five at best, two or three at worst. So slowly people are beginning to understand that we're the only sector that isn't fighting for money, but we ask for more people because ultimately it affects our ability to save lives."

Firefighters' greatest fear on this holiday is bonfires that are not put out properly.

"Such bonfires, with the wind the next morning after the people have left, can spread and cause fire and disaster," Lahav says. A few years ago, the morning after Lag Ba'omer eve, a woman parked over some burning embers left by revelers in her country-club parking lot. Half an hour later her car went up in flames," he adds.

"Most people celebrate the holiday sitting around bonfires with friends, with potatoes, talking in whispers and looking at the flames. They're internalizing the wonder that is fire."