Merav and Micha Almon-Feigin went around Ein Hod yesterday posting notices. "Looking for a sign of life from our girls, hoping they survived the fire in our house," they wrote, in an attempt to find their cats Luna and Lychee, who had disappeared during the fire.

On Thursday afternoon, when Merav saw the distant smoke mushroom, she took the couple's baby and went to her sister, who lives in a nearby moshav. "I was sure we'd be back soon, when the smoke dispersed, so took nothing with me and left Luna and Lychee at home," she says.

But in the next few hours the fire advanced toward Ein Hod and Merav and Micha, a doctoral student in mathematics who returned from lecturing at Tel Aviv University, understood they would not be going home that night. The security forces blocking the road to Ein Hod would not let Merav slip in "for a moment" to get the cats.

On Friday friends told the couple their house had burned down. "Everything was destroyed but the cats' disappearance hurts me the most," Merav says. "It hurts me more than the destruction of the picture albums with all the memories of childhood, the wedding, the trips. "

While the Almon-Feigins continue looking for their cats yesterday, dozens of Ein Hod families who had returned to the village gathered at a former thicket turned into ashes and charcoal to thank the fire fighters.

Not all of them, however, have a home to return to. And some are angry at what they called the "bungling and incompetence."

Covered with soot, Zeev Warchovsky wandered around the ruins of his house. "They told the fire trucks not to come here," he charged.

Warchovsky had been forcibly taken out of Ein Hod by security personnel. "Residents of Nir Etzion stood tight and saved their moshav. Not one inch of land burned there. But if there's no one around, what chance do you have of saving the house?" he said. "I saw the fire approach and begged them to send a fire truck. Instead they sent five uniformed thugs to drag me away."

The white stone facade of the nearby Horowitz house was intact, but the walls behind it were charred and the windows shattered. "Everything's alright," said Niv Horowitz, whose wife and daughter are staying with friends in the village. "What's important is that my dear ones are safe."

A Finance Ministry official arrived at Ein Hod for a preliminary assessment. Even before then, however, representatives of a Christian organization were already distributing money for food and essentials to families whose homes were damaged by the fire.

"I don't expect anything from the government," said Horowitz. "The prime minister acts like he's running for office. Reality in this country - the disengagement and the Lebanon war - taught me that in the end each one remains alone with the broken pieces."