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The Wet Finger of God
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Shaar Hagai


The Wet Finger of God


I was at work in Tel Aviv when I was called to the phone.  Tzvika, my son-in-law, his voice sounding shaken, was on the line with the terrifying announcement, “There is a forest fire all around the farm.  We have been evacuated, and I’m afraid that everything is gone!”  There was no time or possibility for more talking - all he could tell me is that they were safe, but that he had no idea what the situation was at home.

Within minutes, I was in the car, on the way home.  It was early afternoon of a typical early July day, exceedingly hot, as it had been for the last few days, but with nothing appearing out of the ordinary.  Not until I was approaching Latrun, about seven kilometers from home, and was able to see the huge black cloud of smoke covering the sky ahead of me, in the direction of home.  I began hearing reports on the radio of a major forest fire burning out of control from Shaar Hagai in the direction of Shoresh - the next village beyond us!  That meant that home was in the middle of it!

As I approached the Shaar Hagai junction - only two kilometers from there to home - I ran into a huge traffic jam.  All traffic was at a standstill.  Always very law abiding, this time I drove like I have never driven before, weaving from lane to lane around the standing cars, zooming down the road margins on both sides, anything I could think of to get to the end of the traffic jam and beyond, to get home! 

At the Shaar Hagai junction, there was a police barricade - the reason for the traffic backup.  No cars were being allowed through, and nothing was coming through in the other direction from Jerusalem either.  As I stopped next to the police cars blocking the road and looked ahead, I could see why.  The forest ahead was a wall of flames and smoke as far as I could see to both sides of the entrance to the wadi, and ahead as well.  The fire had jumped the road - a wide four-lane highway - and was raging through the beautiful but summer-dry pine forest, driven on its way by the wild “khamsin” wind of the unseasonably hot day.  The pines were not burning, but exploding into flames, and the dry pinecones were catching on fire, bursting, and scattering the flames even further. 

I begged the police at the barricade to let me through.  My home is there, I told them, and there are animals there - many animals!  They will die if I can’t get there to help them!  But there was no way that they would consider letting me go through.  Human life is more important than that of animals, they said.  It was an inferno in the wadi, and no one could go through.

I stood helplessly next to the police cars, hearing the reports coming through on the police radio, of the unbelievable conditions.  The fire was totally out of control and raging onwards, driven by the unceasing wind.  Settlements were being evacuated.  Shoresh, the settlement beyond us, was burning.  Neve Ilan was being evacuated and homes there were burning... Fire trucks came roaring through from all parts of the country - from Hadera, Netanya, Haifa.  Helicopters began passing overhead with enormous containers of water to be poured on the flames from the sky.

I kept begging the police to let me through, and they refused.  They tried to help, offering me water to drink, a slice of a watermelon that they had.  The weather was extremely hot - later it turned out to be the hottest day in years, or some such statistic - but I never felt it.  I couldn’t think of anything except the dogs, depending on me for everything, and abandoned there, alone and unprotected.  One of my greatest fears was that some good Samaritan, from the fire fighting crews, would decide to help them and would open the gates, turning them loose to run in a panic into the burning forest...

I sat by the roadside and cried - for the dogs, who were surely dead, at my failure to do anything to help them, in frustration and futility, at seeing my whole life go up in smoke.  I didn’t know what I would do.

There were many little dramas going on around me.  People who were annoyed at the traffic jam were coming up and yelling at the police, with no comprehension of what was going on.  A band who were due to appear at a very important wedding that evening in Neve Ilan were desperately trying to find out what was going on - though from what I was hearing on the police radio, there was certainly not going to be any wedding in Neve Ilan that evening!  News crews of all sorts were coming and going, interviewing people, photographing everything.

After about three hours, the flames, except for a few occasional flare-ups, were no longer visible from where we were.  I spotted a police car coming up to the barricade from the direction of the fire, and discovered that it was the car of the officer in charge of the barricade.  I immediately ran after him, and once again pleaded to be allowed to go to the farm.

After hearing from the other police about my vigil at the barricade, and consulting over the radio, he agreed.  He would take me in his car, with the warning that I was not to get out of the car, no matter what, without his permission.  I would have agreed to anything just to get home - I jumped into the squad car, and we started into the wadi.

Around us was desolation and destruction.  Everything was black and smoking, here and there flames still crackled.  The beautiful forest was charcoal, with here and there a few green branches, or an entire tree that by some miracle had been skipped over by the flames.  It was hard to breathe - a pall of acrid smoke and heat hung over everything.

We came to the dirt road entry to the farm and turned in.  At the entrance, there were a few green trees, sheltered by the bulk of the water pumping station behind them.  In the entrance, the police officer stopped the car and turned to me.  “You know that what you see up there may be very hard and even horrible,” he said.  “I know”, I replied, “but I have to go up there.”  After seeing all the destruction around me, I was sure that all I would find were blackened corpses.

At the top of the road, I was astonished to find that Dorcas, my daughter and Tzvika, my son-in-law, had gotten there before me.  They had been evacuated to the other side of the fire, had taken the baby to Tzvika’s mother in Jerusalem and had managed to get back from the other side, just minutes before me.  There was a fire truck and crew checking things out, Tzvika’s father Moshe, in the civil guard and “on duty”, and, another surprise, our friend Ofer, who had come from Mevasseret,a nearby town just beyond the range of the fire.  As I got out of the squad car, Dorcas, Tzvika, Moshe and Ofer all yelled down to me - “The dogs are all right!”

I couldn’t believe it.  I ran down to the kennel first.  The lock on the gate was broken - I later found out that Ofer had broken in to see if the dogs were all right - and the trees and tall grass and weeds behind the kennel and around the sides were burned and black. But the kennels themselves were untouched, the wooden doghouses were whole and unscorched, and the dogs were all right!  Covered with soot, but happy to see me, and without harm.  Even the litter of two-week-old puppies was fine!

I ran upstairs.  The dogs were all running loose in the yard and looked unharmed.  Kito, the Shiba Inu, was very stressed, and I let him and the Border collies - running like maniacs as usual, scratched up but otherwise looking fine - into the house, and started counting heads.

All the collies were accounted for and looked fine.  Poor old Twinkle, twelve years old, was a bit shaky on her legs, but seemed to be all right otherwise, and the others, other than being dirty, looked unharmed.  The young Canaans also looked unharmed, but were frightened and stressed.  But one was missing - the four-month-old puppy who was due to go to a new home in a few days.  She hadn’t come to greet me.  I looked around the yard, in the pens, in the boxes - no sign of her.  Where could she be? 

Finally, I found her.  She was on the porch at the side of the house, flattened to the ground, and pressed against the door of the house, afraid to move, afraid to answer my calls - but unhurt.  Everyone was all right!

I entered the house.  During all the time I was waiting to get past the barricade, I never once thought about the house and its contents burning, and now, when I entered the house, containing everything that I possessed in this world (and that not being very much either), it was the first that I realized that everything could have been lost.

But there was absolutely no damage!  There was a bit of ash that had blown in through the windows, but the house wasn’t even particularly dirty!

Dorcas was the heroine of the day.  She had been at home alone, and without a car, when she noticed the haze of smoke in the direction of the road.  She telephoned the fire department, who were already aware of the fire and in action.  When she saw that the smoke clouds were approaching in the direction of the farm at high speed, she grabbed the garden hose and began trying to wet down everything she could.  She let the dogs out of the kennel next to the house and opened the gate to the garden - where there was a damp green lawn, and tried to soak them all with water.  She tried to fight the flames that she could now see approaching the fences, but finally was forced, by the heat, flames and suffocating smoke, to flee down to the road, where she was evacuated by the police, who were trying to clear the area.  She carried with her, in her arms, one little Shiba bitch, the only dog she could manage to take with her.  Tzvika arrived with their car to pick her up and wanted to go up to the farm to take some more dogs with him, but the police wouldn’t allow it.  From the road, they could see the flames burning fiercely along the fence line.

Ofer, our friend, who had arrived first after the fire had passed, described the sight.  Everything was silent - there was not a sound, not a bark or whimper.  He broke the lock and entered the kennel, expecting a tragedy, and found all the dogs pressed against the wall on the side as far as possible from where the fire had passed, huddling there in panic, not moving, but alive.  When they saw Ofer, they began to calm down - they got up, shook off, and began to bark.  The flames had reached the wall of the kennel, but wooden dog houses inside the kennel, not more than a meter or two from the flames, were undamaged.

The dogs upstairs in the yard of the house were filthy and covered with mud and soot, but were also unharmed.  Dorcas and Tzvika arrived and immediately started to wet everything down to prevent the flames from flaring up again, and then I arrived.

Everything around was desolation.  Where there had been a beautiful forest, there was only blackness now.  The heat had been intense - so much so that a large heavy duty plastic shipping box that had stood outside the gate was not melted but actually vaporized - only a small pile of ash remained. The fire had burned everything up to the gate of the house, to the fence around the kennels - but had not crossed the fence line, and had continued on.  In the midst of the black desert of ash, the garden of the house still remained green and flowering.

Why?  Perhaps because I had always been scrupulous about keeping the dogs’ yards clean of thorns and weeds.  Perhaps because we had tried to grow decent lawns and nice gardens, which were kept green and watered, even in the height of the long, dry summer.  Certainly because of the efforts of Dorcas to protect the dogs and the property.  And perhaps, as was so well expressed by a good friend, because God laid his wet finger on the farm...

Four years have passed since the fire.  The dogs, animals that are very capable of adapting, quickly returned to the norms of daily life.  But I am sure that deep within, there will always remain a scar caused by the terror of that day.  The hillsides around us have been cleared and replanted.  But it will be many years before I can walk the dogs again through a beautiful green forest.


The desolation after the fire


The bit of green remaining in the yard