Biggest-ever Israeli forest fire kills dozens
The massive forest fire has killed scores of people and torched some 800 acres of land.
Thu, Dec 02, 2010 at 05:01 PM
RAGING: Vehicles drive on a road during a wildfire in the Carmel Heights near Haifa, northern Israel, on Dec. 2, 2010. (Photo: Avishag Shar Yeshuv/AP)
The worst forest fire in Israel's history devastated one of the country's few forested areas on Dec. 2, killing at least 36 guards on their way to rescue inmates at a prison in the fire zone, destroying homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands.
The fire ripped through the Carmel forest in Israel's Galilee, reaching the coastal city of Haifa, jumping from place to place in the forest left tinder-dry by a lack of rain and unseasonably hot weather.
Israel appealed for international assistance, a measure of the severity of the disaster, and Turkey put aside recent tensions to pledge aid.
Investigators speculated that the fire could have been set accidentally, or it might have been a criminal act, but pretty much ruled out some sort of attack by a Palestinian group.
"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. The fire was still burning out of control as midnight approached.
Most of the dead were prison service guards racing through the fire toward a prison to evacuate the inmates, most of them Palestinians. A tree fell across the road, blocking their bus. Some guards were burned alive inside, while others died as they tried to flee. Fourteen bodies were found near the charred skeleton of the bus 10 hours after the fire started.
Fire officials said the blaze torched some 1,600 acres (650 hectares). A university, three prisons and a hospital were evacuated and at least one village was destroyed. Police said 12,000 people were evacuated from their homes.
Israel calls for help
Netanyahu said the government was using all means at its disposal to contain the blaze, and he appealed for help from abroad.
His office said Greece, Spain and Cyprus agreed to send firefighting helicopters, and additional aid was coming from Britain, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Romania, Jordan and Bulgaria.
Netanyahu's office said Turkey was offering assistance, in a positive gesture after months of tensions. Once close allies, Israel-Turkish relations have been in a crisis since Israel's bloody attack May 31 on a Turkish flotilla trying to break Israel's blockade on Gaza.
Israel's appeal was a rare call for international assistance. Israel is better known for sending its own rescue teams and medical personnel to other countries to help in their disaster relief efforts.
After nightfall, Netanyahu flew over the scene of the fire to inspect the damage. At the firefighters' command post, he said the blaze was of "international proportions," and the arrival of equipment from abroad on Friday could be decisive, but they could not work at night.
Netanyahu called a special Cabinet meeting for Friday morning to assess the situation and make decisions if necessary.
The fire broke out around midday and quickly spread, fanned by uncharacteristic hot and dry conditions at this time of year. Israel experienced an exceptionally hot summer and has had little rain during the normally wet autumn and winter season.
The fire heavily damaged one of Israel's few large forests, made up of natural growth and planted areas, a favorite spot for camping, hiking and picnics. A nature reserve provided a refuge for dozens of species of wildlife. Forestry workers tried to evacuate animals from the inferno.
The forest recovered slowly from a fire in 1989, but experts said Thursday's blaze was many times worse.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military to make all its resources available to help put out the fire and to rescue the victims, according to a statement from his office. The military said it sent soldiers and equipment to the site of the fire, including helicopters, huge bulldozers, medics and army units to help with evacuation of victims.
After sundown, evacuation orders were issued for several communities, a neighborhood of Haifa, Israel's third largest city, and a third prison. Haifa University, at the edge of the stricken Carmel nature preserve, was evacuated, the university said in a statement.
Kibbutz Bet Oren, a collective village in the wooded area, burned to the ground after its residents were evacuated, witnesses said. The military emptied one of its prisons near the fire area, a psychiatric hospital was evacuated and a nature resort in the middle of the forest sent all its guests home.
Yaron Zamir, a spokesman for the national prison service, said the men were prison workers brought in as reinforcements from central Israel to assist in the rescue. He called it a "difficult, sad and incomprehensible day." Police said the commander of the Haifa police station, who was driving behind the bus, was critically burned.
Eli Bin, a spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said three bus passengers were evacuated to hospitals, two in serious condition and one with minor injuries.
Israel's president, Shimon Peres, expressed sorrow for the loss of life and praised the firefighters trying to contain the blaze.
"They exemplify personal and superior bravery and we are praying for a miracle," Peres said in a ceremony marking the Hanukkah holiday. "We pray for their safety. We pray for the cessation of the fire."
Peres' office said he later spoke to the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who offered condolences.
(Daniella Cheslow contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
Copyright 2010 AP News