Israelis flocked to the country's parks and public spaces Wednesday evening to celebrate Lag B'Omer, despite multiple warnings to refrain from lighting bonfires from Israel Fire and Rescue Services, the Health Ministry and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Lag B'Omer, a Jewish holiday celebrated by most with bonfires and barbecues, marks the day in which the Book of (Zohar) Splendor, a landmark text of Jewish mysticism, was first published by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
The customary bonfires, though, come this year at a time of high temperatures, dry weather and strong easterly winds, prompting many Israeli officials to urge against them for fear that larger fires may be kindled.
Fear were eventually proven to have been warranted, after several blazes erupted throughout the country, kicking Israel's fire services into action.
In the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad, no restrictions were placed on bonfires, necessitating an increased level of alertness by firefighters.
At the beginning of the evening, two firefighter teams were called to a huge bonfire that went raged uncontrolled near a synagogue, threatening to burn it. Firefighters were then called to extinguish more than ten fires that eventually went out of control, one near a forest south of the central city.
Oren Shishitzky, a spokesman for Israel's Fire and Rescue Authority, said that bonfires could not be barred in Elad like they were in many other cities across the country due to the city's large Haredi population. According to Shishitzky, barring the fires would encroach on their freedom of religion.
He added, however, that some of the bonfires had to be extinguished due to their proximity to hazardous or flammable materials, such as gas cylinders.
Shishitzky lamented the fact that there is a lack of awareness of the issue of fire safety in the city.
"In the case of the fire that spread towards the synagogue, the public obstructed the fire fighters from carrying out their work, and only with the intervention of the police did we succeed in preventing the fire from spreading," he noted.
The head of the Petah Tikva fire station, Itzik Oz, noted that "in light of the expected weather during the holiday, we decided to reinforce the forces at the Elad fire station, and we have doubled the operational personnel there."
He added that "we are currently dealing with dozens of fires that have gone out of control, endangering property near forests and homes," as "the public, unfortunately, did not listen to instructions, so it's is time to ask everyone to act with extreme caution."
In Jerusalem, a bonfire spread near a school in the Ramot neighborhood, while another caused a fire in Ramot Forest. Both were eventually contained.
In north Israel, the public appeared to heed the warning of the safety services.
"The warnings really did help," said Eylon Singer, a veteran firefighter for 23 years at the Coast District of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.
"We saw far fewer giant bonfires," he said with relief. "People are enjoying themselves … without going wild and endangering lives."
All this, according to the firefighters, will not prevent them from working until morning.
"All the forces are out there, wandering among the fires," he said. "We take care to put out the bonfires at night after the children have gone, and many times we also get calls … to come and put out bonfires that have flared up again."
The Israel Fire and Rescue Services issued restrictions on the lighting of Lag B'Omer bonfires as several cities barred them altogether. Among other things, the fire department barred the lighting of bonfires in areas populated with trees and instructed that bonfires only be lit at least 300-500 meters away from forests and groves.
Several cities, including Haifa, Nesher and Kiryat Yam in the north, Holon, Yavne and Givatayim in the center, and Be'er Sheva in the south barred the lighting of bonfires altogether, while Kiryat Bialik's municipality recommended residents not to light bonfires.
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also called on the public to adhere to fire safety instructions.
"According to the Halacha (Jewish law), despite the importance of the holiday, all must adhere to the safety instructions," Yosef wrote in a message ahead of Lag B'Omer, while Netanyahu urged to trust the fire department's expertise and experience and avoid bonfires, adding that "if you have to, then you should at most have a barbecue at your house."
Itay Blumenthal, Roi Rubinstein, Ahiya Raved and Yishai Porat contributed to this report.