Israeli First Responders Help Combat California’s Fires

As fires continue to blaze all around California, Israeli firefighters have flown in to help extinguish them.
September 8, 2020
The team of Israeli firefighters that came to California to help contain the most recent fires. (All had been recently tested for COVID-19 and are working in the same pod, and are therefore unmasked in the photo.) Photo courtesy of Doug Young.

According to CAL FIRE statistics released on Sept. 7, nearly 14,000 lightning strikes and more than 900 wildfires have burned over 2 million acres, killed eight people and destroyed nearly 3,300 structures in California since Aug 15. On Sept. 5, three new major wildfires broke out in Fresno, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. On Sept. 6, CAL FIRE responded to and contained 49 new wildfires and an additional fire broke out in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County. According to CAL FIRE’s website, there are currently more than 14,100  firefighters battling fires in in the state. In Northern California, 10 of those firefighters are Israelis, who arrived Aug. 30 to help their American colleagues.

“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] does worldwide [aid] and is first to land in any emergency, but the fire department, this is new,” Doug Young, battalion chief and all-hazards coordinator-fire of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, told the Journal. He added because Israel and California have similar topography and are prone to fires, and because both areas are due for big earthquakes, the long-range goal is to make this a recurring partnership.

The Israeli firefighters were greeted in Sacramento by Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with the directors of California’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and CAL FIRE. On Aug. 31, they reported for duty with the CAL FIRE Tehama-Glenn Rangers unit. 

The partnership was born out of a relationship forged in 2018 between Young and Col. Itzik Oz, head of the operations division at the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, during a program run by the Advanced Security Training Institute (ASTI). ASTI was founded in 2004 by Yisroel Stefansky, an expert in practical disaster response, and one of the Israeli first responders who came to New York after 9/11. 

The ASTI program brings American first responders to Israel to learn from their Israeli counterparts. ASTI’s training program, which is funded by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, covers “all hazards,” Young said, including terrorism, fire and police matters, active shooter situations and coordinated attacks, as well as “how they deal with unified command and emergency in general.” 

ASTI Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Carrie Simms told the Journal Young’s first trip to Israel included participants from Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland, representing the fire and police departments and emergency management. After completing the program, Young stayed connected to his Israeli colleagues, and served as liaison for three ASTI trips starting in 2017.  

When the California fires broke out this summer, Young already was talking regularly to another Israeli colleague, Yoram Levy. Levy asked Young to create a presentation about the fires for Israel’s fire commissioner. After the presentation, Young said the Israelis let him know, ‘We’re going to send guys over [to the U.S.]”

According to Consul General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest Shlomi Kofman told the Journal the team came together “in basically no time” as he worked with in coordination with CAL OES, the foreign ministry in Jerusalem to coordinate and receive visas from the US Embassy.

Kofman said he worked with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem to obtain visas for the 10 firefighters who hail from different parts of the country. Israel’s Foreign Ministry covered the flights for the team. Some are in special firefighting units, while others are medics or have other specialties. Oz served as team leader. The team is scheduled to fly back on Sept. 13 and will spend two weeks in quarantine to ensure they have not contracted COVID-19.

“What I love about the fire service is that it doesn’t matter your race or religion. Whoever you are, we come and help. It’s the same for Israel. For these guys to come all the way out here to go to work and fight fire, that’s amazing.” — Doug Young

Simms said delegations from Canada and Australia also wanted to come but “got tied up in bureaucracy. [Young] asked the Israelis and they were here within 48 hours.”

She added that the relationships resulting from ASTI programs “help create a more secure United States. We need them and they need us,” she said. “The State of Israel is home to God’s chosen people and as believers, we need to support that. When something happens in Israel, U.S. first responders can help and when something happens in the U.S., we can utilize those relationships to bring Israelis here to help.”

Today, ASTI participants continue to reach out to their counterparts when help is needed, Simms said. “It’s been very organic and a result of relationships we have built over the years. Israel only wants to keep America safe and training [our] first responders in Israel is in our own best interest.” 

ASTI participants “recognize how critical the relationship is to them,” Simms said, comparing the Israeli team to scuba divers. “They like to be under the surface of the ocean and don’t want anybody to know what they’re doing … but I’ve explained to them that people need to know what we’ve been doing and why these relationships matter. If Doug and Colonel Oz hadn’t maintained relationships, we wouldn’t have this Israeli delegation in California right now.”  

“We are really thrilled and excited by the chance of bringing the firefighters not only as an act of having them here fighting the fire alongside their counterparts, but also as a message of solidarity,” Kofman said. “Israel is the best friend the U.S. has, not just on the political or economic level, but also people to people. Every person counts and the message of bringing people here is a message of friendship, solidarity and deep, deep, deep connection. It’s a long-term relationship that’s been there for years and will continue into the future.”

“What I love about the fire service is that it doesn’t matter your race or religion. Whoever you are, we come and help,” Young said. “It’s the same for Israel. For these guys to come all the way out here to go to work and fight fire, that’s amazing.”

Daily fire updates are available on fire.ca.gov/daily-wildfire-report/. 

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