Thousands fight Israel fire

2010-12-03 16:20
Firefighters try to prevent a wildfire from reaching the town of Tirat Hacarmel in northern Israel. (Dan Balilty, AP)

Firefighters try to prevent a wildfire from reaching the town of Tirat Hacarmel in northern Israel. (Dan Balilty, AP)

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Haifa - Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers backed by fire crews from around the globe battled on Friday to conquer the biggest inferno in Israel's history, which has already killed 41.

As high winds drove the blaze towards the northern port city of Haifa, police and medical officials said rescuers had recovered another body, taking the toll to 41, and warned the number of dead could still rise.

"We have recovered 41 bodies, and there are still three people missing," said police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld, adding there were 17 people injured, including three seriously and one critically.

Rosenfeld said 15 000 people had been evacuated as the fire incinerated more than 4 000ha of land and reached the southern part of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city with a population of 265 000.

Thick smoke rose above the Carmel forest and drifted towards Haifa, where residents were told to keep their windows shut.

Police and rescue workers confirmed most of the dead were prison guards on board a bus, who had been trying to evacuate inmates from a facility in the forest.

"The bus tried to turn around and some tried to get away but they were caught by the fire from two different directions," Rosenfeld said, saying two police officers and third person were still missing.

"We still haven't searched areas like Beit Oren (kibbutz) which were very badly burned so we are not sure what we are going to find, and the toll may still rise," he said.

Water bombers on scene

Firefighter Albert Munis, who arrived on Friday morning to battle the blaze 24 hours after it started, was horrified by the scene.

"We just saw black, a lot of black," he said, adding firefighters were being drafted from across the country.

"Anyone who can hold a hose has been called up to the fire station."

By Friday afternoon, at least four Canadair water bombers could be seen flying through the smoke-choked skies, pouring water and fire retardant onto the vast flames.

Two fire-fighting choppers and three small aircraft were also involved in the huge task of curbing the inferno.

There are only 1 500 firefighters operating across Israel, a number widely accepted as woefully inadequate for a country of 7.6 million people, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urgently appeal for international help.

"Our firefighting measures cannot provide an answer to forest fires of this magnitude, especially in the face of such winds," he told his security cabinet.

By early Friday, five Greek aircraft, a Bulgarian craft with 100 firefighters, a Cypriot aircraft and helicopter and a British helicopter were in Israel, a military spokesperson said.

US, Australia on standby

Firefighters from neighbouring Jordan were battling the blaze and Palestinian firefighters were called in for backup to handle fires in two Arab villages inside Israel.

Israel said it had received pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey. The United States and Australia said their firefighters were on standby.

"I very strongly appreciate the mobilisation of so many countries," Netanyahu said as he visited the injured at Haifa's Ramban hospital.

He said Russia was sending a large firefighting aircraft and Israel was looking into hiring a "supertanker" aircraft from a US company.

Officials said firefighters had not managed to control the fire, which was still spreading north and west, and video footage showed much of the horizon engulfed in flames, producing plumes of thick black smoke.

A separate fire broke out north of Haifa, but police said it was unrelated to the main blaze and had largely been brought under control.

Scathing criticism

Officials said it was not immediately clear what caused the main inferno.

Yoram Levy, a fire service spokesperson, said it appeared to have started in a rubbish dump in the Druze village of Isfiya, an account supported by witness testimony reported by the Haaretz daily.

Pilot Alon Chaim said he had spotted a small fire outside Isfiya just before midday on Thursday and had alerted the fire department.

"I flew over the fire, which at that point was a tiny blaze," he told the paper, saying the fire could have been put out very quickly.

The Israeli press was filled with scathing criticism of the government for the country's lack of preparation.

"The wind, it seems, is the only thing directing anything in this country," commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.

Read more on:    benjamin netanyahu  |  israel  |  fires

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