Jewish Communities Brave Wildfires in Southern California

A fire crew passes a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, Wednesday. (Reuters/Mike Blake)

The fallout from fires that have ravaged southern California this week continued to take higher tolls and, by Wednesday, fires had moved closer to the metropolitan Los Angeles area — forcing several Jewish schools to close, creating challenges for some local businesses to function normally, and sending Hatzolah into action as their crew played a central role in aiding evacuations.

Ari Sabbagh, spokesman for Hatzolah of Los Angeles, said that as the need for emergency assistance in evacuating the elderly and infirm from volatile areas has grown, his organization has been at the forefront of aiding other local agencies in moving residents to safety, sometimes under trying conditions.

Hatzolah initially became involved in evacuation efforts when residents of a Jewish nursing facility needed to be moved to safety, but as the need for emergency personnel has multiplied, they have been called on to assist in the transport of infirm individuals throughout the affected area. On Wednesday, Mr. Sabbagh said that he had been part of a team that was flagged down by police to evacuate residents of an apartment building on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, where one of the fires was nearing.

“Yesterday [Tuesday], we went to help evacuate a convalescent home and as we were moving them out, the fire department was putting out fires in the back of the building. The smoke and ashes were everywhere, we could hardly breathe,” he told Hamodia.

Most of the nursing home residents that Hatzolah evacuated were brought to hospitals in locations further from the fires, where they could continue to get the care they need in safety.

The city’s Hatzolah, which consists of around 100 members, designated three ambulances and several paramedics, who took the day off from their jobs, to be ready for calls from local police and fire departments for help.

“We are standing by and ready to help wherever we are needed,” said Mr. Sabbagh.

While, as of Wednesday, fires themselves had mostly stayed clear of established Orthodox communities, smoke and debris in the air, as well as deteriorating conditions in surrounding areas, forced some Jewish schools to close for the day.

Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, head of the Valley Torah High School, said that he and other staff decided to send students home late Tuesday morning as conditions worsened.

“The smoke started to spread and make it uncomfortable to be in the building,” he told Hamodia. “Today at 6:45 a.m., we decided to stay closed for the day; we would have loved to have school, but our students come from all over and it would be very hard for a lot of them to make it here, besides that smoke issue.”

The school is located in Valley Village, some five miles from the nearest fires, yet several other schools in the area closed as well, including Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshivah Ketanah of Los Angeles.

The facilities of what is possibly the area’s best known Jewish business, Herzog winery, were unaffected, as fires in Ventura were several miles away. Yet, General Manager Motty Herzog said the crisis had taken a heavy toll on many of the company’s staff members.

“Half of our workers are out, either because they evacuated or have their kids home from school,” he told Hamodia. “Our wine maker and a lot of our employees live there and some of them have had severe damage.”

Even as the winery remained open, Mr. Herzog said the area was filled with smoke and that his eyes were constantly “tearing up” on his drive to work that day.

Rabbi Mordechai Nemtzov who leads the Chabad of Ojai Valley, one of the few shuls in the areas besieged by fires, evacuated with his family Tuesday morning when he saw flames less than a half mile away nearing his home, taking with him a 92-year-old woman in need of assistance.

“We took some changes of clothes, the sifrei Torah, some sefarim and silver and left as fast as we could,” he told Hamodia.

Since then, the Nemtzovs have been staying in a suburb of Santa Barbara, but Wednesday afternoon, Rabbi Nemtzov returned to pick up extra supplies and check on those who had stayed behind, distributing face masks and water bottles. He had already learned of two congregants whose homes went up in flames when they were hit by burning embers.

“It’s calm now, but there’s a lot of ash and smoke, and they’re expecting the strongest recorded winds to come that could blow even more embers around,” he said.

The Nemtzovs’ home as well as the shul they run did not have structural damage, though the area is littered with tree branches and the air conditioning system is filled with ash and soot.

“The loss of property and even displacement is very hard to deal with, but our first concern is to make sure that everyone stays safe,” said Rabbi Mentzov. “We worked hard to convince people to leave, but it’s not so easy for everyone to pick up and go. We are visiting whoever we can and letting them know we are here to help.”

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