Jewish National Fund mourns the lives lost today in the fire that is raging across Israel’s Carmel mountain region, already called the worst fire in the history of the State, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rescue teams and equipment are being brought in from all over the country. All of Israel’s 1,550 firefighters have been called to the scene, joined by JNF-KKL foresters to battle the blaze.
“This disaster represents a fire of unprecedented proportions for the people of Israel and presents an enormous challenge for Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services,” said Shimon Romach, Israel’s Fire Commissioner. “While we are strongly committed to confronting this with all our country’s available resources, the scope of this incident means our rescue services are in need of support from the international community at this time.”
S President Barack Obama expressed his “deepest condolences” for the victims of a massive forest fire in Israel and said the United States had offered to help fight it.
The blaze engulfed a forest near the northern Israeli city of Haifa, killing 40 people, most of them prison guards on board a bus that was trapped in the inferno, the worst in Israel’s 62-year history.
World Torday’s Middle East correspondent Anne Barker is at a roadblock near the fire and Anne, are more details emerging about what happened to the people on board that bus?
ANNE BARKER: Shane, it really is very tragic. These men, I presume they were all or at least mostly men, they were in a bus, there were about 50 of them and they were going to the Damon prison in the Carmel mountains near Haifa and a log or a tree apparently fell across the road which blocked the buses path.
And it was right at that spot that the fire was burning most fiercely and the men just basically had nowhere to go. Fourteen bodies were found outside the bus about 10 hours after the fire first started and the rest were found inside and at one stage they say that the winds were so strong that the fire moved 1500 meters in the space of three minutes so that was the sort of inferno that they were dealing with.
A lot of these men were young cadets, apparently trainees and they were on one of their first big jobs really and so that has made it even more tragic.
SHANE MCLEOD: Is there any information on how this fire actually started?
ANNE BARKER: Look, there isn’t. I mean one thing that is worth knowing is that Israel has not had any real rain, barely a couple of days maybe since about April or even earlier. It has been absolutely dry as a bone here and it has been very hot.
Normally we should be heading into winter with rain and very cold temperatures at the moment and it is like a tinderbox. It is still high temperatures, even in Jerusalem we are getting, you know, high 20s, mid-20s and here towards the coast they have had temperatures over 30 degrees.
So the forest on the Carmel Mountains is just a, is so dry that I think there is every chance it may have been a natural fire.
There was suggestions, a suggestion that somebody had been burning rubbish but at this stage it is too early for that sort of investigation to have gone very far.
SHANE MCLEOD: What about efforts to actually try to contain the fire? Is there any prospect of that?
ANNE BARKER: Well look I am sitting by the side of the road about maybe three, four kilometres away from the main fire on the mountain. It is 3.20 in the morning here.
It is an absolutely incredible sight at night because you can see in the space of the time that I’ve been here, this fire has just engulfed a side of the mountain and is moving in all directions. It is clearly coming closer and it is moving very fast. There is a very strong wind.
There are hundreds of fire-fighters literally trying to fight this and they have evacuated a very large area even to Haifa itself which is not right where I am. About 12,000 people have been evacuated.
I think the problem is that Israel has never really had to contend with a disaster like this before. They don’t have the fire-fighting equipment and techniques that Australia does for example so there are 10 fire-fighting planes coming in from Spain, Greece, Cyprus.
They are not here yet. They don’t have choppers or planes that carry water so they really are very limited in how they can fight this fire and I would not be surprised if it burns for quite a few days before they can really bring it under control because just watching it, it is clearly, clearly out of control.
SHANE MCLEOD: Are there areas that are particularly under threat from it or is it burning in fairly wild forest areas?
ANNE BARKER: Well, look it is the forest area that has obviously given it the fuel that has kept it going but within that area there is a kibbutz just right there that was completely destroyed earlier today. There were houses in a very wide radius that have been destroyed. Nobody seems to know exactly how many.
There are 7,000 acres, I’ve heard, of forest land that has been destroyed. People have been evacuated from a very wide area, from a luxury hotel, from a hospital, from a university.
I think there were houses here and there, like there were several spot fires even on the mountain as I watched so there has been quite a lot of communities in there. There are small villages and towns and I think we won’t really know the full impact for perhaps even a couple of days.
SHANE MCLEOD: Our Middle East correspondent, Anne Barker there from a roadblock near that fire in Israel.
“I want to begin by offering our deepest condolences to the families, loved ones, of all of those who died,” Obama told some 500 guests during a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the White House.
“As rescuers, firefighters are continuing their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends in this time of disaster,” he said, adding that the government was looking into what kinds of aid it could provide.
The Israeli fire service has urgently called up all 1,500 firefighters in the country, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an urgent appeal for international assistance in containing the fire.
Offers have poured in, with Greece pledging to send four firefighting planes, Cyprus offering a helicopter and another firefighting aircraft, and Bulgaria reportedly sending 90 firefighters.
Israel’s foreign ministry said it had also received pledges of help from Romania, Azerbaijan, France, Russia, Croatia and Turkey.