Fire exposes Israel's emergency shortfalls

2010-12-03 18:05

Haifa - A deadly wildfire in northern Israel which has already killed 41 people has exposed critical shortfalls in a country where resources are focused primarily on military and police forces and firefighters have been undermanned and underfunded for years.

The Israeli Cabinet convened an emergency meeting to discuss the fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked countries around the world for their help - and made a special point to thank Turkey - before departing north to visit the wounded in hospitals and inspect firsthand the efforts to put out the fire.

"We are amid a disaster of international proportions," he said. "We have to admit that our firefighting services cannot handle a forest fire backed by such a strong wind. We don't have the means for it."

Yoram Levi, a spokesperson for Israel's fire and rescue service, said the country only has 1 400 firefighters, far below the worldwide average. The force also complains of having old and faulty equipment.

"The size of the fire is huge, the wind is very strong and there is a problem accessing the mountains and valleys," said Levi. "We don't have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water. It is not enough for a large-scale fire."

The sense of helplessness sparked outrage among Israelis.

Aluf Benn, a columnist for the Haaretz daily, said the country's inability to control the flames proved it was not ready for a massive attack against it from the likes of Iran. He compared the fire to the fiasco of 1973, when Israel was caught off guard by a surprise military attack from Egypt and Syria.

Maariv columnist Ben Caspit noted that a country that carries out chilling military operations, leads the world in high-tech and whose powerful economy emerged unscathed from the global crisis, is also the country "whose fire-trucks date back to the previous century, and a country that therefore finds itself caught, standing before the flames, with its pants down".

Victims being identified

Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said the death toll had risen to 41, all on a bus carrying Israeli prison guards to try to rescue Palestinian inmates at a nearby prison.

The bus caught fire after a tree fell across the road, blocking its path, police said. With no way out, many of the guards were burned alive inside the vehicle. Others perished while trying to flee the flames fed by brush left tinder-dry by lack of rain. The prisoners survived.

Forensic experts were still working on identifying the victims and a procession of funerals began on Friday. Police also evacuated a university, three prisons and a hospital.

Two police officers and two firefighters were still reported missing on Friday. Rosenfeld said 16 people remained hospitalised, including the Haifa police chief, who was in critical condition. Ahuva Tomer was interviewed on TV moments before she was engulfed by the flames.

On Friday, 30m-high flames spread across a hilly pine forest toward the sea. Helicopters flew back and forth to the Mediterranean, scooping up sea water and dumping it on the fire. Turkish aircraft scattered white powdery material over the smoky hills. Banana trees were burned and a row of Cyprus trees were stripped of their leaves with only thin trunks remaining.

Israeli rabbis issued a special prayer for the victims. President Barack Obama also offered condolences to families who lost loved ones in the fire, and pledged US help at a Hanukkah celebration at the White House late on Thursday.

Cause unknown

Around 15 000 people were evacuated from their homes and around 30% of the Carmel forest in Israel's Galilee had been burned since the fire started on Thursday, officials said.

The area is one of Israel's few large forests, made up of natural growth and planted areas, a favourite spot for camping, hiking and picnics. A nature reserve provides a refuge for dozens of species of wildlife and forest rangers have evacuated animals from the inferno.

Kibbutz Bet Oren, a collective village in the wooded area, suffered significant damage after its residents were evacuated, witnesses said.

Investigators said they were uncertain if that the fire was accidental or deliberate. They said it originated around midday on Thursday from an unauthorised burning of a garbage dump in the Druse village of Ussfiya and was stoked by unusually hot and dry conditions that caused it to quickly spread toward the Mediterranean coast.

Israel has experienced an exceptionally warm summer and has had little rain during the normally wet autumn.

Several communities and a neighbourhood of Haifa, a city of 265 000 people, were evacuated, along with Haifa University at the edge of the stricken Carmel nature preserve. The military emptied one of its prisons and three bases near the fire area. A psychiatric hospital was evacuated, and a nature resort in the middle of the forest sent all its guests home.

Wind fanning the flames

European aircraft dumped tons of water over flames shooting from tall trees on Friday in northern Israel as firefighters struggled for a second day to contain the country's worst-ever forest fire, which has killed 41 people and displaced thousands.

A strong wind fanned flames through one of the country's few natural forests to the outskirts of Israel's third-largest city, Haifa. One of the main country's highways was closed to traffic as adjacent trees were left smouldering and smoke billowed toward the Mediterranean coastline, with bits of ash flying through the air and large red flames closing in on a hotel and a spa south of the city.

The shortfall of rescue personnel and equipment prompted an unprecedented wave of international assistance. The Jewish state is better known for sending its own rescue teams and medical personnel to other countries to help in their disaster-relief efforts.

Around 100 firefighters from Bulgaria arrived as well as fire extinguishing aircraft and crews from Greece and Britain, Israeli officials said. More aid was on its way from the United States, Russia, Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan, Spain, Azerbaijan, Romania and Turkey - which put aside tensions over Israel's deadly raid on a Turkish Gaza-bound flotilla in May to lend a hand.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio that all international aid was expected to arrive by Friday afternoon and he expressed hope the fire could be suppressed by Saturday night.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military to make all its resources available for the effort, which was being co-ordinated by the Israeli air force. The military said it sent soldiers and equipment, including helicopters, bulldozers, medics and army units.