Israeli firefighters at San Francisco International Airport, Aug. 30, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Israeli firefighters at San Francisco International Airport, Aug. 30, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Israeli firefighters land in San Francisco to help battle wildfires

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A team of 10 Israeli firefighters landed just before 7 a.m. Sunday morning at San Francisco International Airport, on their way to help battle the fires raging throughout California.

It’s the first time Israelis have been deployed to fight fires on the ground in the United States, according to Shlomi Kofman, Israel’s S.F.-based consul general.

The team, which is composed of individuals from across Israel, arrived with their own personal gear, Kofman said. He helped arrange their visit and met them at the airport with a consular delegation. The gear includes portable radios, food and breathing apparatuses.

They were accompanied by Itai Bardov, a representative of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which spearheaded and funded the operation, in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and Israel’s Ministry of Public Security.

Bardov said the Israeli offices worked quickly within a 48-hour timeframe to send the 10 firefighters.

“Everyone just engaged together and worked together,” Bardov said. “This was really, really quick.”

The leader of the group, Itzik Oz, said that when the call was put out to find volunteers for the job in the United States, there was a lot of interest.

“I think most of the firefighters in Israel [volunteered],” Oz joked. He added that while the lightning-sparked fires in California are unique, his team is prepared to respond.

“This is a different kind of fire,” Oz said. “But it’s the same training. Doesn’t matter if it’s a big forest or a small forest. We are ready to do everything. Whatever [California’s firefighters] need, we’ll do it.”

The team first headed to a fire station in San Francisco for a briefing, then towards Sacramento before being split up into units to fight fires in the northern part of the state. They will be here for two weeks, assisting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and then return to Israel, where they will quarantine for 14 days in accordance with the country’s coronavirus protocol.

Israeli firefighters have been sent to Ethiopia and Brazil recently, and Israeli fire experts have advised U.S. firefighting efforts, but this is the first on-the-ground aid, Kofman said.

As of Sunday morning nearly 16,000 firefighters continue to battle nearly two dozen major fires and lightning complexes across California and more than 60,000 people remain evacuated, according to Cal Fire.

Fires sparked by the lightning siege that started on Aug. 15 have now burned over 1.42 million acres. There have been seven reported fatalities and nearly 2,500 structures destroyed, according to Cal Fire.

The LNU Complex in the North Bay has destroyed 1,209 structures, damaged 193 and threatened 10,350, and is 56 percent contained, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The SCU Complex in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties, has destroyed 377,471 acres and is about 50 percent contained, while the SZU Complex in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties have destroyed more than 1,000 structures and is 35 percent contained.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].