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We've Got to Be There for Israel

You can call them Israel’s American Volunteer Fire Brigade. Scores of firefighters from across the United States, who share a love of Israel, left their jobs and families behind to fight the wildfires that swept across Israel last week. Only a handful of them are Jewish.

“We’re just firefighters. When we heard about a situation like this, where the Israelis are working as hard as they can, we wanted to help,” said Billy Hirth, a Protestant and retired firefighter from Arlington, Texas, with 24 years of experience, who had coordinated the American effort from Jerusalem.
 
“It’s a brotherhood. Firemen are firemen,” he said. Hundreds of fires, most started by Palestinian and Arab-Israeli arsonists with nationalist motives, flared up in Israel since last Tuesday, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. Some 32,000 acres of forest and brush burned along with hundreds of homes and businesses. An unseasonably long dry spell and high winds spread the fires very quickly.
 

Last Friday, Israel’s Public Security Ministry requested firefighting assistance from the Emergency Volunteers Project, a network of over 950 American volunteers and professional first responders. By Saturday evening, the firefighters started arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. From there they were dispatched to overstretched fire departments across the country. Some fought the remaining wildfires and some fought new ones that flared up Sunday. Others did routine firefighting. Though the Israeli firefighters were overworked this past week, they must remain in high alert, so the reinforcements were much appreciated. 
“Most of us, me included, have worked over 90 hours straight,” said Oren Shishitzky, a spokesman for Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority. “Most of the Americans were trained here in Israel, so they were familiar with how we operate, and were easily able to provide relief to some of our crews. I cannot emphasize enough our appreciation that these guys dropped everything around the Thanksgiving holiday to come here.”
 
The Emergency Volunteers Project was founded by Adi Zahavi in 2009.  A first responder during the second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War he was overwhelmed with work. He prepared this group of willing Americans to help in future crises, from wars to terrorist attacks to natural disasters. Training sessions are held in the United States and Israel. Volunteer deployment is coordinated with Israeli authorities.

Several firefighters, including Hirth, previously helped Israel during the 2014 Gaza war, when the south and center of the country were showered with lethal rockets. Many of them are now working alongside firefighters they became friends with during training.
 
 “The quality of the American firefighters that have arrived is excellent,” Shishitzky said. “They are elite firefighters, with years and years of experience. Many are veterans who serve in some of the best departments in America. Any differences in training and practice were overcome long ago with the training we have conducted.”

Elan Raber, a Los Angeles firefighter, is one of seven Jewish firefighters in this group. Raber is familiar with the Petach Tivkah fire station because he trained there. “I was here last year and really bonded with the guys, so I wanted to come back. We came in here to help these guys who have already been up for three, four days. We can basically help them out and be on standby if the wildfires come back.” Born in Israel, Raber also served in the IDF, and views helping here as a part of his “calling.” “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad press for Israel, so I hope to show that people are willing to drop everything to show solidarity with the people of Israel. I think people see that, and it’s a good thing. Firefighting was my calling, so I’m happy to help out,” he said.
 
Eli Row — the Orthodox Jewish owner of Jet911, an air ambulance company based in Queens, New York — quickly organized flights for the firefighters over Shabbat, something that Jewish law requires if it saves lives. On Monday, Row landed in Israel afternoon and thanked the American firefighters for their service. The rest of Israel also says, “Thank you!”

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