Tens of thousands evacuated in Israel amidst wave of fires

Jerusalem, Nov 24 (IANS) Fires on Thursday forced a widespread evacuation in Haifa and foreign countries sent in firefighting planes to help put out a three-day wave of forest fires across Israel.

Tens of thousands of residents from around 11 neighbourhoods were forced to evacuate the areas immediately, along with Haifa University and many businesses, Xinhua news agency reported.

In addition, the municipality transferred hundreds of pupils from nearby kindergartens and schools to alternative schools.

“We have no control on the fire… we are in a state of war,” a police official said.

Firefighting teams and planes struggled with multiple blazes in the area from the Carmel ridge to the Mediterranean coast.

Other teams fought fires near the coastal city of Caesarea, Rishon LeZion city south of Tel Aviv, the Wadi Ara region in northern Israel, and in Jerusalem.

The fires spread quickly amidst exceptionally dry and windy weather.

Heavy smoke spread to nearby neighbourhoods as residents ran out of their homes carrying bags or their pets.

The Fire and Rescue Service declared “a state of emergency”, and 300 firefighter reservists from the Homefront Command were called to duty.

The Homefront Command also deployed two Search and Rescue battalions in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, a military spokesperson said.

Three Greek firefighting planes, capable of refilling their water tanks at sea, arrived in Haifa, to help hundreds of local firefighters put out the fires.

Three more planes are expected from Turkey, which renewed its diplomatic relations with Israel in June.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke over phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin for assistance.

Putin told Netanyahu he will send two B-200 planes, each capable of carrying 13,000 liters of water and flame retardants.

Firefighting planes from Croatia, Cyprus, and Italy are also expected to land at a military base in Israel on Thursday, following the government’s request for international help.

Uri Chibotero, Haifa district’s Fire Service spokesman, said the fires erupted simultaneously in at least four areas in the coastal city of Haifa, reinforcing suspicions that arson was involved.

However, Luba Samri, police spokeswoman said that police forces are still investigating if arson caused the fires.

A rain deficit since the beginning of the winter season, combined with days of dry air and strong easterly winds, stoked the fire, spreading it across central and northern Israel.

The fires started on Tuesday near Neve Shalom, a community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, forcing the evacuation of the entire community.

Further forest fires caught dozens of other regions from Jerusalem to Nahariya, Israel’s northernmost coastal city.

According to Magen David Adom, Israel’s medical emergency service, at least 21 people, including five toddlers, needed medical care for smoke inhalation. However, there were no reports of serious injuries.

MetaoTech weather service said the dry and windy weather conditions are expected to last until the start of next week.

In 2010, a massive forest fire in the Carmel ridge in northern Israel, which erupted under similar weather conditions, raged for days, killing 42 people.

The media harshly criticised Netanyahu back then for procrastinating in asking help from the international community.

The incident led to reforming firefighting services, including establishing an airborne firefighting squadron.