Thousands battle Israel’s worst fire as toll hits 41


HAIFA: Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers fought Friday to control a massive forest fire that has killed 41 people, as global help poured in to battle the biggest inferno in the country’s history.
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.
“As of this morning, we have recovered 41 bodies, and there are still three people missing,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, adding there were 16 people injured, including three seriously and one critically. Rosenfeld said 15,000 people had been evacuated
as the fire incinerated more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land and reached the southern part of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city with a population of 265,000. Police and rescue workers confirmed most of the dead were prison guards on board a bus, who had been trying to evacuate prisoners 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 told AFP, 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.
At the temporary command centre set up at Haifa University, convoys of fire engines were roaring in and out and police were struggling to direct traffic, all under a huge mushroom cloud of smoke, an AFP correspondent at the scene said. “It looks like a nuclear explosion,” observed one bystander. As the Carmel mountains continued to burn more than 24 hours after the blaze started, 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 planes 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urgently appeal for international help. By early Friday, five Greek planes, a Bulgarian craft with 100 firefighters, a Cypriot plane and helicopter and a British helicopter were in Israel, a military spokesman said.
A second British helicopter was due to arrive soon. The Israeli army said at least eight international fire-fighting planes and three helicopters were involved in the operation, as well as 150 firefighters from various countries. The foreign ministry confirmed it had received additional pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey.
US President Barack Obama expressed his “deepest condolences” for the victims and said US firefighters were on standby, and Australia also said its forces were ready to help.