a man in full firefighter gear poses at the back of a firetruck with a grim expression
Idan Braun was one of 10 Israeli firefighters who volunteered to come to California to help fight wildfires. (Photo/Courtesy Braun)

Israeli firefighter in California: ‘The mind can’t understand the size of this fire’

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Israeli firefighter Idan Braun, who had come halfway around the world to help fight Northern California’s wildfires, couldn’t believe his eyes.

“The mind can’t understand the size of this fire,” he said, describing the massive LNU Lightning Complex in Napa and Sonoma counties that spread across more than 360,000 acres at its peak. “It’s huge, it’s huge.”

Braun was part of a team of 10 Israeli firefighters who volunteered to help Cal Fire battle the monster blaze. For nearly two weeks they worked shoulder to shoulder with state firefighters to push back against the LNU wildfire, which began in mid-August and covered five counties. It is nearly fully contained now.

“It’s an adventure that you are not doing every day,” Braun said.

The Israeli team arrived on Aug. 30, and after some schmoozing and, more importantly, an official briefing, they went straight to work.

“In the first day, we spent 24 hours straight on the mountain,” Braun said, speaking to J. from Israel, where he is in quarantine with the rest of the traveling crew.

A career firefighter with 17 years of experience, Braun said it was fascinating to compare the methods of firefighting in Israel with those used in the U.S., such as the utilization of hand crews and controlled burns as tools to control the LNU Lightning Complex Fire.

“It was interesting,” Braun said. “We are doing it less here in Israel.”

He said that in Israel fires usually are so close to urban areas that it calls for a different approach.

“It’s because of the size. The tactics are different. My fires will threaten homes very fast. In these fires, in California, it takes time to get to the cities,” he said.

In contrast, going up a mountain to meet the fire was a new and fascinating challenge.

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“It’s fire that’s burning [at] 4,000 feet on a mountain, even 5,000 feet!” Braun said.

He learned, too, about the different ways that California firefighters communicate and organize their fight, and even how they operate at fire stations — after working on the mountain, the Israeli crew also subbed at understaffed firehouses in the Sacramento area.

“I think we are just starting to digest some of the information we got,” Braun said. “Not everything is appropriate to a small country like Israel.”

Asked whether 10 firefighters from Israel could make a difference in such a massive fire control effort, Braun said the Israelis were able to provide some much-needed staffing relief for the state’s beleaguered firefighters. It was symbolic as well, he said, and showed that Israel cares about California.

“We’re a small country,” he said. “To send 10 firefighters, it’s very, very nice.”

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.

“I think the response was that it was an incredible experience,” Kofman said. “Both as professional to professional, and colleague to colleague, and Americans to Israelis.”

Braun, who volunteered for the trip, was happy to come help. He said his friends were surprised he’d travel during a global pandemic, but for him it was easy to say yes.

“Firefighters have some way of thinking and behaving that they [want to] help each other no matter what, all over the world,” he said.

Braun spoke to J. four days into Israel’s mandatory two-week quarantine. But he wasn’t fretting at the wait. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I think the cause is more important than a little inconvenience.”

He’s traveled to many other countries to train and assist as well, but said it was especially meaningful to come to the U.S., which he loves.

“We really want to help our brothers across the sea,” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.