Israel struggles to contain wildfires

2010-12-03 09:22
An Israeli firefighter works on the slope of a burning hill on the edge of Tirat Ha Carmel near the northern city of Haifa after a huge fire killed 40 people. (Marco Longari, AFP)

An Israeli firefighter works on the slope of a burning hill on the edge of Tirat Ha Carmel near the northern city of Haifa after a huge fire killed 40 people. (Marco Longari, AFP)

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Tirat Carmel - Firefighting aircraft from four countries flew into Israel on Friday to help battle a huge forest fire close to the northern city of Haifa that has killed at least 40 people and forced mass evacuations.

Badly needed assistance also was due to arrive from several other states during the day as Israel struggled to contain the largest blaze in its history that torched woodland, destroyed homes and revealed major shortcomings in the emergency services.

"The fires are still not under control and the strong winds are making things worse," the chief of Israel's fire service, Shimon Romah, told Israel Radio.

Fire crews from across Israel were mobilised on Thursday to combat the fire, which was believed to have started in an illegal garbage dump. But they did not have the resources, especially water tanker aircraft, needed to tame the inferno.

The sky glowed orange through the night near the major Mediterranean port of Haifa and as day broke, television pictures showed the fire still raged across a broad front.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on a visit to the scene that Israel had suffered a "disaster on a scale we have never seen before".

Not under control

International help arrived from Bulgaria, Jordan, Greece and Britain. Cypriot, Turkish and Russian aircraft also were en route, while flame retardant materials were being flown in from France, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.

"The Russians are sending and we are waiting for the biggest firefighting plane in the world ... an Antonov with huge firefighting capacity," he told Israel Radio.

"Most of the planes will arrive by lunchtime. It is very difficult for the fire appliances to fight the flames, I hope that we will be able to control the flames by tomorrow (Saturday) evening," he added.

At least 41 people died on Thursday, mainly prison service officer trainees, when their bus was engulfed in flames as they headed towards a prison to help evacuate 500 inmates to safety, emergency services said.

More than 12 000 people were evacuated from towns and villages as the fires threatened hillside homes.

US President Barack Obama sent his condolences and said the United States would provide help.

Emergency services not ready

"As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster," Obama said.

While Europe freezes in an early winter, Israel has had unseasonably hot weather in its driest November in 60 years.

The fire started around midday on Thursday, and Israeli media was scathing about the inability of local emergency services to deal with such a disaster.

Newspapers said experts had warned for years that firecrews lacked the resources needed to combat major conflagrations, which could have dire consequences in war.

"Yesterday it turned out that Israel is not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front," Haaretz newspaper said in a front-page commentary.

Read more on:    benjamin netanyahu  |  barack obama  |  israel  |  fires

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