The Lessons Are Written in the Fire on the Wall, Says Herzliya Fire Chief

Haaretz sits down with Eyal Caspi in the aftermath of the worst wildfire in Israel's history.

In normal times, Eyal Caspi is the commander of the fire-and-rescue station in the Herzliya area. He is in charge of 50 firemen and 16 fire engines. Caspi, 47, has been a firefighter for 24 years; before his army service, he was already a volunteer in the Fire Scouts as a high-school student. He says he decided to be a firefighter "because I was looking for work that was not routine." He has been commanding his men in the Mount Carmel area since Thursday evening, when they were called in to help fight the mega-blaze.

Fire Chief Caspi, how much sleep have you had since Thursday morning?

fire - Yaron Kaminsky - December 6 2010
Yaron Kaminsky

I think I might have snatched three quick hours of sleep altogether, in the front of a fire engine.

What mission were you and your men assigned to?

Our mission was to spread out from the Nir Etzion area to the outskirts of Tirat Hacarmel. We joined local firefighters who were in the area, and we became an integral part of the forces. Since then we have been busy with searching for central hot spots and gaining control of them. Part of the time, we helped evacuate trapped people, particularly in Tirat Hacarmel. One of the central events in which we participated was the evacuation of an institution for people with disabilities. There, we managed, in cooperation with the police, to bring close to 200 people to safety, unharmed, on Thursday evening - at the very last moment. In the end the hospital [in Tirat Hacarmel] was not burned because we were able to set up a defensive line and to fight the blaze there.

Can you give us an idea how this blaze is different from all other fires you have fought in the country, such as the huge one in the Carmel region in 1989?

I have just this minute returned from two hours flying in a police aircraft. In the past 30 years, we put out all the fires in Israel with firefighters who worked on foot. Sometimes we were assisted by the army and four or five planes, and occasionally in the past also helicopters. This time a massive force of airborne fighters came from abroad and all the firefighters in the country are here, but we have still not managed to put out the flames. I think this illustrates that we are talking about an unprecedented event.

What are the central factors that caused such an enormous blaze?

First and foremost is the fact that it comes after a long period without rain. Add to this the extreme weather conditions we are currently having; the strong winds and the very low humidity have made it possible for the blaze to spread tremendously. We saw flames traveling by a leap of 500 meters - like a giant wave at sea. We are not familiar with things like that, even from the professional literature.

What are the main difficulties you are facing in gaining control of the fire?

The number of hot spots here is tremendous and in many cases are located in areas that are very difficult to reach. But despite this, the firefighters here have very high motivation, and this is not a cliche: Even those who have been here since Thursday do not want to be replaced. They rest for an hour or two in the trucks and return to their fighting positions. We won't leave until it is over.

Can you estimate how much time it will take until it is all over?

I don't think it will take a week. From what I saw now from the air, it seems as if a significant part has already burned out. I think we are talking about another 48 hours because we have to work to put out every fire.

In addition to the difficulty in fighting the fire, the commanders have to operate very large forces here over a gigantic area. How is this done?

I call this blaze a war and we feel like it is, because this time all the country's resources were put at our disposal. The army gave us surveillance planes and unmanned aerial vehicles, which were in communication with our forward command post, and with their assistance we were able to get a clear picture. And when you have a picture from the air, you are able to conduct the event because inside clouds of smoke like these, you can't see a thing. The moment I got a picture of where every fire engine was, I was also able to give the men instructions. This is the first time I have worked with aerial pictures.

Since Thursday evening, people have not stopped talking in the media about the gaps, about what is lacking in the firefighting sphere. You live with it on a daily basis. Is it really that bad?

The lessons are written in fire on the wall. We spoke about the gaps and what is missing, and the implications of this, but no one was interested in the firefighters. This IS despite the fact that we are the professional civil body that has to protect the home front. If the country does not beef up and fortify the firefighting services, the answer will come on the Day of Judgment. There are other places in this country too where that can happen. The data here are not very different from those in the Beit Shemesh area and the approach to Jerusalem. There are very similar problems there to what you see here. The country has to understand that the fire-and-rescue service is one of the central emergency units in Israel, and just as the army and the police and the Home Front Command get all the means to fight a war - it is not possible that only the firefighters will not get such means.

There is a lot of talk about the need for firefighting planes. Is that the biggest problem?

First and foremost, we lack manpower. A fire engine can take a team of five - that is the key. The more young, dynamic, professional and quality manpower there is, the better we'll be able to cope.

Can you foresee what you would have to deal with in a war where hundreds of missiles fall on the home front?

I can foresee the potential risk only on the basis of the scenarios that we've created. No official body took the trouble to pass on to us the scenario prepared by the defense establishment. It must be remembered that at the national level, the firefighting commissioners together with the secretariat consists of 17 people while the operative arm consists of six people.

Is there a future for the firefighting profession in Israel?

For every open job slot for a firefighter in Israel today, there are 50 candidates. A firefighter in this country is a person who has to have [a grasp of] a variety of fields: physics, chemistry, hydraulics, topography and now we know he also has to know how to navigate. The future firefighters will be people who have ability in engineering, didactics and physics, as well as physical and mental fitness. We climbed up 30 floors in the Shalom Tower [in Tel Aviv, during the fire there] carrying heavy equipment on our backs, only last month. We also encounter very difficult situations and the men have to have the ability to deal with them. The firefighters today are trained and skilled in this, but there is only a very small number of them.