A Fourth Volunteer Firefighting Unit Has Been Established in Israel

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 5:57 PM

“I hope that we can establish a unit like this in every moshav in the area, so as to protect residents’ homes.”

KKL-JNF invests extensive resources in the preservation and care of forests throughout Israel, for which forest fires are an ever-present threat. In the wake of the Carmel Fire and the realization that residents have a major role to play in forest conservation, KKL-JNF, in conjunction with the Emergency, Fire and Rescue Services, has initiated a new project that includes the establishment of volunteer firefighting units. On Wednesday April 17th, at Beit Shemesh Fire Station, the nine volunteers of the newest firefighting unit celebrated the completion of their training with a special ceremony.

The volunteer firefighting unit of Moshav Mesilat Zion. Photo: Bat Chen Ben Ami-Sonin

KKL-JNF carries out various types of forestry work that are designed to prevent fires, including regular pruning, high pruning, thinning out the number of trees per unit area and the creation of firebreaks around settlements and within the forests themselves. All these activities are designed to reduce the speed at which fire can spread and the height its flames can reach. KKL-JNF also allows sheep and cattle to graze extensively within the woodlands throughout the year, as, by eating grass and shrubs, these animals reduce the amount of available organic flammable material.

The Carmel Fire disaster and the terrible toll it took of Israeli lives have significantly increased awareness among visitors to Israel’s forests, who are now more careful how they behave in woodland. Because of the Carmel Fire and the realization that local residents have a major role to play in forest conservation, KKL-JNF, in conjunction with the Emergency, Fire and Rescue Services, has initiated a new project that includes the establishment of volunteer firefighting units. The members of these volunteer units undergo an instruction course with firemen from the nearby regional fire stations, who show them how to deal with fires in both woodland and open areas. The units operate under the auspices of the firefighting services and in full cooperation with KKL-JNF.

Eshtaol Forest. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

So far around one hundred volunteers have undergone training, and are now active in three units: one is located in Karmei Yosef, a community adjacent to Yaar HaMeginim-Nahshon (“The Defenders-Nahshon Forest”), another is in Kfar Habad, and the third unit, which is responsible for protecting Ben Shemen Forest, is that of the Modiin District Regional Council. All were trained by the Ayalon Fire Station.

On Wednesday April 17th, at Beit Shemesh Fire Station, a fourth unit of nine volunteers held a ceremony to mark the conclusion of their training. Under the supervision of firefighter Kobi Peretz of Beit Shemesh Fire Station these volunteers, all of whom hail from Moshav Mesilat Tzion, underwent an intensive course of training that included theoretical studies, practical exercises and the use of firefighting equipment.

Moshav Mesilat Tzion is situated in the heart of Eshtaol Forest, which extends over an area of around twelve thousand dunam (approx 3,000 acres). The forest is an integral part of the lives of the local residents, who enjoy the advantages it offers on the one hand, but live in constant fear of forest fires on the other. In the past the moshav’s members have experienced a number of fires, the largest of which – known as the Shaar HaGai Fire – broke out in July 1995 adjacent to the moshav and destroyed some two million trees over an area of twenty thousand dunam (approx 5,000 acres) of natural woodland and planted forest. The fire threatened to spread into the moshav itself, and continued to burn for around thirty-six hours, causing damage estimated at tens of millions of shekels. Until the Carmel Fire, the Shaar HaGai Fire was considered the largest blaze in the annals of the State of Israel. Because of Mesilat Tzion residents’ heightened awareness of the dangers of forest fires, the offer to train a volunteer firefighting unit elicited an eager response, and a group of nine volunteers was formed: Haim Aharon (Chairman of the community council), Menahem Moshe, Peter Cooper, Boaz Eliahu, Efi Ben Bassa, Eli Menahem, Or Eliahu, Zion Shamir and Shai Reuveni.

Receiving KKL-JNF certificates. Photo: Bat-Chen Ben Ami-Sonin

Menahem Moshe is a KKL-JNF forest ranger who is responsible for firefighting in the Judean Hills, and, as a resident of Mesilat Tzion, he decided to take responsibility and join the local volunteer unit. “The history of Mesilat Tzion is studded with fires that have broken out on almost all sides of the moshav – to the north, south and east,” he said. “It was clear to us – and to myself especially, as one whose job involves combating forest fires – that our community is at high risk.
“I should like to take this opportunity to thank Kobi Erez, who coordinated the course and served as instructor, together with firefighters Ohion and Mizrahi. They are a professional team with impressive abilities and a high level of motivation. It’s obvious to us that, from a professional point of view, we have to continue our training conscientiously and attend additional courses of instruction, and we all intend to do this to the very best of our ability,” he concluded.

The ceremony to mark the end of the training course was attended by members of the Emergency, Fire and Rescue Services, KKL-JNF staff members, representatives of Moshav Mesilat Tzion and the families of the volunteers. The ceremony was conducted by the fire station’s operations officer Avi Ben Zaken, who thanked the members of the new unit for their generous volunteering spirit. “This ceremony is a landmark in the activities of Beit Shemesh Fire Station as far as volunteering and serving the community are concerned,” he said. “It’s by no means a commonplace occurrence for such a respected group of people to find the time to take part in such a demanding course of training. The members of this volunteer unit have undergone a complex course of study that included theoretical material, practical training and physical effort.”

Beit Shemesh Fire Station. Photo: Bat Chen Ben Ami-Sonin

Haim Aharon, Chairman of the Mesilat Tzion Residents’ Committee, thanked KKL-JNF and the Emergency, Fire and Rescue Services for taking the initiative to establish volunteer units and for providing members of the moshav with the opportunity to participate in regional fire-prevention activities. “KKL-JNF has invested a great deal in creating firebreaks, the Beit Shemesh Fire Station has done its very best to provide a swift and professional response to every incident and the moshav’s volunteer unit will be the first on the scene whenever anything happens to provide an initial response to try and stop any fire from spreading. I hope that we won’t have to use the knowledge and tools that we have been given, but if we are called upon to act, we shall do so in the very best way we can,” he said.

Haim Messing, Director of KKL-JNF’s Central Region, remarked upon the volunteering spirit that had enabled this project to come to fruition. “Volunteering is an important value in Judaism and Israeli culture, and KKL-JNF is greatly privileged to be a partner in the volunteer firefighters’ training project,” he said. “This is the fourth time that we’ve trained a group successfully, and the residents of Mesilat Tzion deserve to be commended for their volunteering spirit.”

Gilad Mastai, Director of KKL-JNF's Coastal Plain area, said at the ceremony that he was fascinated by the story of Mesilat Tzion’s foundation and survival. He described its residents as strong and courageous people who spearhead local volunteer activities and the development of tourism in the region. “I read that the forest around the community was planted by the residents themselves,” he said. “This means that the forest is part of the fabric of people’s daily lives. I can see the pioneering spirit in these people who are doing what they believe in, and I thank them for taking care of the forest.”

Commander of Beit Shemesh Fire Station Major Reuven Yitzhak thanked the volunteers and told them that this was only the beginning: “I hope that we can establish a unit like this in every moshav in the area, so as to protect residents’ homes,” he said. “Those of you who have completed the course have traveled a route that was by no means easy, but there is still a long way to go. Experience will teach you that we still have a great deal to contribute to you, and we’ll be continuing to make that contribution.”

Jerusalem District Fire ServiceCommander Major General Meir Peretz described the establishment of the volunteer units as a formative moment for the Fire Department. He praised the collaboration with KKL-JNF, saying, “We’ve been working together for many years, and at every forum I take part in I mention this excellent cooperation between the two bodies – which is not a thing one sees every day. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Mira Zer, to whom all credit is due. Mira’s perseverance, together with that of those around her, has brought the course to a successful conclusion, and we now have the first volunteer unit in the Jerusalem district and Beit Shemesh Fire Station. Thanks are also due to Yael Banin, who is in charge of volunteers at KKL-JNF, to Kobi Erez, the course instructor, for the professional job he has done, and to everyone else who helped to make the project a success.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony the graduates and their instructors were each presented with personalized tree-planting certificates. The volunteers were also given firefighting uniforms by the Fire Department, and KKL-JNF presented each volunteer with a bag of equipment designed to provide primary protection against fire.

KKL-JNF Coastal Plain Community and Forest Coordinator Mira Zer summed up the proceedings by saying that, in view of the success of the course, she is already preparing additional courses for communities in areas adjacent to KKL-JNF forests.