Carmel Blaze Gives American Fireman Chance to Help Save New Homeland

When Benjamin Gibson, an experienced firefighter who immigrated from the U.S. five months ago, volunteered to help douse the flames covering the Carmel last week, he didn't think providing water to some cows was the number one concern. But the decision to send Gibson, currently studying Hebrew on Kibbutz Maagan Michael at the Jewish Agency ulpan, on a bovine rescue mission may have allowed him to help avert a larger disaster.

Benjamin Gibson
Raphael Ahren

Last Thursday, when the massive blaze started, Gibson could see the smoke from the kibbutz, which sits on the coast at the foot of the Carmel, while working on an ornamental garden. As soon as he got back from his job, he called Gideon Knaani, the head of the kibbutz's volunteer fire crew, but found out Knaani had already left to go help with the effort.

Gibson grew up in Grayland, Washington, and is a certified firefighter and emergency medical technician, with many hours of firefighting under his belt. Not being able to help fight the fire drove him crazy, he said.

"I was just going insane all of Thursday night, I was reading every news item I could get my hands on - I wanted to be there," Gibson, 23, told Anglo File in Jerusalem, a few hours after the fire was brought under control Sunday.

Early Friday morning, when he Knaani and Knaani's son left to go fight the fire, they were given the job of delivering water to cattle on a farm that had lost its water supply.

"Honestly, I just wanted to get to fighting the fire, but I knew helping out the victims of the fire was very important, too. After we dropped the tank of water off, it turned out it could have been the best thing we did. Because on the way back Gideon spotted some small fires that were just starting to get off in the forest, in an area that was still completely unburned. We stopped and extinguished those. We put it out when it was small, but it could have turned into something really big, and it could have caused big problems in the long run." Gibson, who calls firefighting "one of the great loves of my life," says passing the burned out bus on which 37 Prison Service cadets were killed last Thursday was a humbling experience. "It just reminded me that I'm human. ... In moments like that you don't get scared, it just reminds you to be prepared. There was some sadness, too, but when you're fighting fire you can't think about that. When your mind gets distracted you're not safe," he said.

Gibson helped put out a fire before it reached a gas station station, but was replaced by another senior firefighter after the kibbutz fire truck had to be brought in for repairs.

"The Israelis treated me great," Gibson said. "At that point I think they didn't care what country I was from or what languages I spoke. Everyone had good attitudes, even though it was a big tragedy."

Gibson, who wants to find work as a fireman somewhere in the country, was critical of the state of the firefighting force in Israel.

"We were not adequately prepared," he declared. "The fire caught us with our pants down. And that's just plain and simple something we have to admit, get over it and fix the problem."

"We've been planting trees in this country since its inception," he said, adding that he remembers putting his spare change in the little blue-and-white box for the Jewish National Fund. "There was no plan in place for the case this forest would light on fire. That should've been done."