As the protests along the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip enter into their fifth month, fires continue to erupt with devastating consequences. More than 1,100 fires caused by incendiary strikes by Gazans sending flaming balloons and kites across the border have damaged thousands of acres of land along the Gaza Strip and have caused millions of dollars in damages to Israel’s agricultural system.
Since 2009, the Emergency Volunteers Project, an international organization authorized by the Israeli government, has trained close to 2,000 volunteers, both domestically and overseas, to deploy to Israel in times of crisis. The American volunteers must be ready to travel to begin working with the Israel Fire and Rescue Services within 24 to 48 hours. In the United States, more than 400 volunteers have been trained by EVP.
On July 29, a group of 10 Americans from California, Florida, Michigan, Texas and two from Baltimore’s own Jewish community were deployed to respond to emergencies in Ruhama and Be’eri Nature Reserves, among others, in South Israel.
Eitan Charnoff, a spokesman for EVP and native of Potomac, Maryland, says the incendiary strikes occur daily.
“This has become a routine. Every afternoon between five and 20 balloons are sent over the border to set fires,” said Charnoff. “The fires can be very small, but that’s only because the crews are able to get there quick enough.”
But frequently the fires have not been small, as even a five- to 10-minute response time by IFRS could allow a fire enough time to spread. The flaming kites and balloons sent over the border to Israel are pushed by strong winds coming off the Mediterranean Sea, and the devices, some of which are carried kilometers into Israeli territory, drip embers as they move, creating many fires over a large area.
“If you drive within a few kilometers of the border with Gaza, it is just scorched earth, just patches of black. It’s hard to imagine unless you see it for yourself,” Charnoff said. “In the immediate proximity to the border, there isn’t much green land left to burn.”
Jeffrey Ellenbogen of Towson is a neurologist by profession but also volunteers with the Baltimore County Fire Department. He spoke with the JT on August 2, while still deployed in Israel.
“When I first heard of this, I had to do a double take. ‘They’re using what to start fires in Israel?’” said Ellenbogen. “It’s hard to imagine.”
Although Ellenbogen has experience dealing with extreme elements from volunteering with the BCFD Station 29, he says the training and work he has done with the IFRS through EVP is very different.
“In Israel there is a very high level of situational awareness and expectation that terrorism is right around the corner,” he said. “When we get called to a fire, security plays a really strong role in the fore of our minds as firefighters, which is not commonly on our minds arriving to a structure fire in Baltimore County.”
At the start of 2018, Ellenbogen left his position as a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to work full time directing the Sound Sleep Project, a research project that aims to advance health, wellness and performance by optimizing sleep. This has allowed him to be much more available to deploy to Israel, which he has done three times already this year.
“When I have to decide whether or not to deploy in an instant, I really just have to look in the mirror to make a choice,” he said. “It is much simpler than having an entire busy practice where a lot of people are dependent on me. It’s inspired me to keep doing this.”
For Scott Goldstein, the captain of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company and U.S. director of training with EVP, the biggest challenge comes in the form of personnel.
“At the end of the day, you put the wet stuff on the red stuff to make the fire go out. The question is, ‘How many people do we have to accomplish that task?’” said Goldstein, who recently returned to Baltimore from his fourth trip to Israel with EVP. “In Baltimore County, we’re heavy on personnel. If I have a house that catches on fire, I get about 20 people in 10 minutes. Over there I get eight, maybe 10.”
The volunteers with EVP are not exclusively firefighters. Goldstein said that his training sessions, which have taken him all over the country, are meant to prepare a number of different emergency personnel including doctors, nurses, paramedics and community volunteers who knock on doors to check in on people after an event like an earthquake.
Another challenge EVP faces is funding. Deployments are not funded by either the American or Israeli governments, but by donations. The most recent deployment that sent both Ellenbogen and Goldstein to Israel was funded by the Jewish Federations of North America.
“Israelis in the south and throughout the country need to know that Jewish Federations are here to aid in times of crisis and times of peace; finding ways to strengthen Jewish peoplehood with compassion and commitment,” Rebecca Caspi, the director general of JFNA Israel, said in a prepared statement.
What might come as a surprise is that according to Charnoff, most of the U.S. volunteers for EVP are not Jewish. He said he has on occasion asked these volunteers why they’re willing to make such a sacrifice for Israel.
“Firefighters are generally truly genuine people who are out there to do good,” Charnoff said. “I usually get the same answer, ‘You guys asked for help, so we came.’”