Israel battles fire with foreign help

2010-12-04 16:00

Haifa - Responding to an unprecedented Israeli distress call, aircraft from Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Britain dumped sea water and flame retardant on a woodland inferno that has killed dozens, displaced thousands and ravaged one of the Holy Land's most prized forests.

As the country mourned the dead, Israelis - long known for their high-tech society and vaunted rescue missions abroad - were stunned on Friday at their firefighters' helplessness in quelling the blaze, the worst forest fire in the nation's history.

Still, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - embattled over the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort - it was also a chance to show that Israel was perhaps not so isolated after all. Even the Palestinian Authority pitched in with firefighting units.

Suspicions of arson persisted on day two of the blaze as it rampaged through the Carmel Forest near Haifa, Israel's third-largest city. Police said small brush fires that broke out on Friday appeared to have been deliberately set, though police chief David Cohen said it was possible the main fire erupted because of carelessness.

Anguished families began burying the 41 dead - most of them prison guards who perished on Thursday when the blaze engulfed a bus that was transporting them to evacuate a prison. Fewer than half had been identified by late on Friday because bodies had been burned beyond recognition.

Deep loss

The human tragedy was compounded by the loss of precious woodland in a country where only seven percent of the land is forested. Tree-planting has an almost mystical quality here: For decades, Jews the world over have dropped coins into blue-and-white boxes of the Jewish National Fund, which has planted 240 million trees in the Carmel Forest and elsewhere across Israel since its founding in 1901.

Though the scorched woodland covered an area of only about 21 square kilometres - or one percent of Israel's forest land - the fire was felt as a deep national loss.

Outside Haifa, wind-driven flames towering nearly 30 metres turned the sky crimson as they spread across hilly pine forest toward the Mediterranean Sea. Flying back and forth, helicopters and planes scooped up sea water and dumped it on the blaze. Turkish planes scattered powdery white flame retardant over the smoky hills, dotted with charred banana trees and cypress trees stripped of their leaves.

The eruption of the blaze on Thursday overwhelmed Israel's small firefighting force and prompted an unprecedented call for international help from a country better known for helping in other countries' disaster zones.

Yoram Levy, a spokesperson for Israel's fire and rescue service, said firefighters battling strong winds were having trouble accessing the mountains and valleys.

"We don't have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water," Levy said. "It is not enough for a large-scale fire."

'Exceptional' international response

At least 100 firefighters from Bulgaria arrived as well as fire extinguishing planes and crews from Greece, Britain and Cyprus, Israeli officials said. Additional planes were offered by other EU nations and Russia. The US was sending a team of firefighting experts as well as tons of fire retardant and foam, and pledged to help with additional aircraft.

President Barack Obama discussed the fire and expressed his condolences for the loss of life in a telephone call to Netanyahu from Air Force One after it departed from Afghanistan. Obama had made an unannounced holiday visit to US troops there.

Israel's Mideast neighbours, Jordan and Egypt, also sent firefighters and equipment.

Netanyahu thanked the many states that stepped in to help Israel, saying the "one bright spot" in the calamity was "the solidarity of the peoples of the world with the people of Israel".

The message had special resonance in a country where people perceive increased hostility from a world eager to see creation of a Palestinian state.

"The international response to our call was exceptional," Netanyahu said during a visit to the north. "It demonstrates that there is affection for Israel and identification with it from all corners of the Earth."

'Improving relations'

The help that drew the most attention came from Turkey, once a close ally but now a vocal critic - most recently because of a deadly Israeli raid in May on a flotilla of activists bound for blockaded Gaza, the Palestinian territory run by Hamas militants. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed.

For the first time since the raid, Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him for Turkey's help. "I am certain it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries," his office quoted him as saying.

But Erdogan was quick to reply that the help did not mean ties would return to normal and that his country still expected an apology and compensation for the victims. "If these matters are settled this could start a positive process for the future," he said.

By early evening, the fire still raged out of control and 17 000 people had been evacuated from 14 communities and facilities, said Cohen, the police chief. Most were from outside Haifa, a city of 265 000.