Many of the 40 plus victims were prison guards travelling on a bus which was caught in the inferno in the Carmel Mountains on 2.12.2010 near the northern city of Haifa. Thousands of people, including prison inmates, have been evacuated from the area.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has visited the affected area, said it was an “unprecedented disaster”.
The BBC’s Jon Donnison in the region says the Israel’s emergency services have not had to handle an operation on such a scale since the war in Lebanon in 2006.
The Israeli prison service said the bus was carrying guards to help with the evacuation of nearby Damon Prison, which was threatened by the blaze. More than 13,000 people have had to leave their homes to escape the flames. The men had been raced to the area from central Israel to assist in the rescue, prison service spokesman Yaron Zamir said.
A fire brigade spokesman told that the flames had travelled 1,500m (4,920ft) in less than three minutes. “The bus had no chance. They tried to escape but were burned alive. It was a horrific scene,” the spokesman told the newspaper. A senior police chief from Haifa who was also in the area was reported to have been critically injured.
“We are harnessing all the forces of the state to deal with this disaster and rescue those who are injured and to stop the fire,” Mr Netanyahu said. He said protecting life was now the priority. “We don’t want any more injuries, any more dead. We suffered a hard blow and we don’t want any more dead, not even one.”
In a rare request for foreign assistance, Mr Netanyahu called on Italy, Cyprus and Russia to help in tackling the fire. Greece, which faced its own disastrous wildfires in 2007, has sent a team of experts, while US President Barack Obama has also offered assistance. The UK has dispatched a Royal Air Force helicopter based in Cyprus with firefighting equipment. A second helicopter can be deployed almost immediately as needed, said a spokeswoman for the British embassy to Israel.
The fire in the northern Carmel region broke out about midday (1000 GMT), and hundreds of firefighters were battling the flames on the ground and from the air amid heavy winds.
At a ceremony marking the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, Israeli President Shimon Peres praised the firefighters tackling the flames, saying they exemplified “personal and superior bravery”. “We pray for their safety. We pray for the cessation of the fire,” he said.
Some 13,000 people have been evacuated from the area. Israeli media said it was the biggest forest fire in the country’s history, with 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) of land destroyed by 2.12.2010 evening.
Israel is currently suffering a period of drought with no significant rain since the spring.
Deadly Israeli fire rages on despite global aid
Israel struggled to contain a huge and deadly forest fire that raged on for a third day on Saturday, 4.12.2010 despite the efforts of firefighting planes from half a dozen countries.
The worst inferno in Israel’s history has killed 41 people, forced 17,000 to flee their homes and destroyed some 10,000 acres of woodland near the port of Haifa. By nightfall it had still not been brought under control.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said two people suspected of starting the blaze through negligence had been arrested. Israel Radio said the suspects were 16-year-old boys from a village bordering on the Carmel region woodlands where the fire was focused.
“It looks as though this is the result of negligence,” said Atiya, adding there was no evidence of any link to terrorism.
Planes and helicopters from the United States, Spain, Azerbaijan and Switzerland were expected to join those from Russia, Turkey, Greece, Britain, France and Cyprus, already dumping water on the flames.
Jordan, Egypt and Bulgaria were among other nations rushing in supplies such as flame retardant, fire trucks and crews, to help Israel cope with the conflagration.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also offered to send help, in a rare telephone conversation with Netanyahu. The two were not believed to have spoken since U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations stalled in September, 2010.
Abbas voiced condolences to Israel for those who died in the fire. Most were prison cadet trainees on their way to evacuate 500 inmates from a penitentiary.
Netanyahu said he would establish a fleet of firefighter aircraft, which he told Abbas would be made available to Israel’s Arab neighbors where necessary. Abbas also offered to send Israel several firetrucks, Israel said.
“You cannot extinguish a mega-fire swiftly,” Netanyahu told reporters after surveying a disaster scene on Saturday. He said the United States had also sought outside help to cope with natural disaster. “We all get help from others. It’s a part of our existence as a global village,” Netanyahu said, adding he was “very, very grateful” for all the aid Israel had received from abroad.
He announced Israel had also chartered a Boeing 747 Supertanker expected to arrive overnight to reinforce fire extinguishing efforts.
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