KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel — For the firefighters of the Kiryat Shemona Brigade in northern Israel, it has been an uncommonly dull day. Some shoot hoops in the parking lot, while others lounge in the office of Fire Chief Shimon Dadon, drinking coffee and watching a kung fu film.
Ethan Rozner, an Israeli Defense Forces reservist assigned to the fire team, sits in a doorway smoking a cigarette next to a scrawny but affectionate mutt the guys at the station house have nicknamed "Katyusha."
They believe it was abandoned by its owners, who likely fled south. An estimated 80 percent of Kiryat Shemona's population left the town once Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets starting falling on the neighborhood.
There is a background soundtrack to this setting. It is the continuous deep crack and whhuuump of outgoing artillery that, by my count, seems to be firing at a rate of one every 30 seconds or so.
At a few minutes to 4 p.m., one of the engine commanders, David Mamone, says we need to get ready to go inside and take cover. Time for the Katyushas.
They are not so regular that the station house can plan around them like some predictable Five O'Clock Charlie dropping a bomb with stubborn and onerous punctuality.
Mamone says the attacks come at any time, morning or night. But the fire department, he says, is privy to military intelligence and some insight into Hezbollah's patterns. This is one of them. At 4 p.m. the town's air raid sirens go off. All of us pack under the cover of the station house.
Off into the distance, due north, a Katyusha pinpricks the hillside, sending up a cloud of gray smoke but little else. Almost immediately, a single engine Piper is circling over the site. The Israeli Fire Department has hired a fleet of them, originally crop dusters, but now retrofitted to spray fire-retardant chemicals on the dry brush often ignited by the rockets' impact.
The planes patrol at will and with little fear, since Hezbollah doesn't have an air force. (An IDF spokesperson says Hezbollah did launch an unmanned spy plane Monday, which Israel claims to have quickly shot down just as it entered Israeli airspace.)
At 5 p.m. the air raid sirens go off again and Engine No. 11 rolls out on a call. This time the impact of a rockets is more than just a pinprick. It has landed in a courtyard at Danciger High School, smashing a small retaining wall and creating a six-inch impact crater in the concrete.
But that's not all. The rocket fragments have bounced up, poked the walls of the school's gymnasium and left some broken windows. Red-hot metal has ignited the kitchen section of the building where snacks were prepared. Black smoke is billowing out of the upper windows.
The door to the kitchen is padlocked and one of the firefighters rips into it with an electric saw.
"Water, water," yells another firefighter, running a hose line from the engine to the burning gymnasium.
Within minutes they are spraying the interior of the kitchen, where the walls are already charred.
Because it's summer break and because of the fighting with Hezbollah, the school building was empty. But, if the attack had been at a different time in the day, the outcome come have been much worse.
With the fighting in northern Israel, the school has been turned into a kind of community center for the city, where food supplies and psychological counseling are handed out to local residents. Principal Amir Goldstein says people are in and out of the campus on a daily basis.
He says in the last two weeks the school has been hit three times, including the latest attack.
"I'm very sad about it," he says. "Here it is Aug. 6 and we're scheduled to reopen for classes on Sept. 1. With teachers and students and all of our programs, we're not sure we're going to be able to open the school year like we wanted."
When the fire is out Dadon inspects the impact crater and the damage that was done, but almost as quickly as they arrived the engine team rolls up its hoses, packs its gear and heads back to the station.
Another engine from the same brigade will be called out almost exactly one hour from the time this call was made. They will respond to another rocket attack, this one hitting a nearby school, shearing a hole through a building wall and igniting a grass fire with its exploding debris.
And an hour after that, there will be another call, this one to an Israeli missile battery that has caught fire because of a malfunction.
This is how the evening progresses. In fact, this is what it's like most days and nights for Israeli firefighters all over the north.
A Firefighter and school principal talk about what the Katyusha attack means for the school» View
"We're at 150 percent of our usual capacity," says Moshe Mosko, national spokesman for the Israeli firefighters' union. "I'm not worried about our guys. They can keep this up, but I am worried about the budget."
Mosko says since Israeli firefighters get paid from a complex mix of three different sources: the union, the federal government and the municipality. The chaos of the war has delayed some of those municipal payments. He says some firefighters haven't been paid in a month.
But that financial hardship is easier to bear, some firemen say, than the burden of seeing so many people hurt and killed during this war.
One firefighter says he talked with a friend who responded to the rocket attack that killed 12 Israeli reserve soldiers Sunday. "The bodies were in pieces everywhere," he says his friend told him.
And for some it's not just the sight of Israeli victims that causes anguish. Yigal Ben-Abu has been a firefighter for 15 years in northern Israeli city of Karmiel. He says he was moved to tears when he saw a picture of one of the children killed during the Israeli air strike on the Lebanese village of Qana. I show him some of the pictures I took from the aftermath of that attack, now stored on my computer.
"I'm telling you, I hate the sight of that," he says. "It's a horrible thing, but Hezbolllah has to stop hiding behind women and children. They are using them as human shields."
Closer to the more hectic Lebanese border area, few of the firefighters of Kiryat Shemona have the energy to talk much about the causes and effects of the war.
Serenaded by incessant thunder of outgoing artillery, they simply wait for the next barrage of rockets to fall. After the explosions, the firefighters will do the only thing they can do — contain the destruction until both sides stop firing.