Planes from Greece and Bulgaria arrived in Israel today with firefighters and equipment to help contain a forest blaze near the port city of Haifa that has killed about 40 people and forced the departure of 14,000 others.
The planes landed at the Ramat David air base southeast of Haifa, an Army spokeswoman said, speaking anonymously according to military regulation. Spain, Croatia, Turkey, France, Russia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, the U.K., Egypt and Romania have also pledged to send aircraft, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.
Israel expects about 20 planes from those countries to arrive during the course of the day, said Menachem Caspi, one of the firefighter commanders. The planes will have to work over the next few days until the blaze is fully extinguished, he said in a televised press conference from Haifa today.
“This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions,” Netanyahu said yesterday in televised remarks. The Cabinet will meet today to discuss measures to deal with the blaze.
All of Israel’s firefighters have been mobilized, department spokesman Hezi Levi said on Army Radio, calling the blaze the worst in the country’s history. The army dispatched firefighters, equipment and hundreds of soldiers.
U.S. President Barack Obama, at a White House ceremony to celebrate the Hanukkah holiday, began by “offering our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones” of the victims of the fire and pledged aid to help fight it.
The fire began around midday yesterday in the Carmel hills outside of Haifa, home to 266,000. The exceptionally dry summer created conditions that allowed the flames to spread quickly, said Salman Abu Rukun, an employee of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. Shimon Koren, Israeli police northern district commander, said the possibility that negligence or arson started the blaze was being investigated.
The fire department ran out of flame retardants yesterday after two months of fighting blazes, Levi said. Staff were flying to France to bring back more, he said.
More than 14,000 people were asked to leave their homes on the southern outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s Channel 2 reported.
“I prefer that people not be at home or in bed for one night but enjoy the rest of their lives,” Netanyahu said.
Foreign Assistance Essential
There is little chance of stopping the blaze without assistance from abroad, Levi said on Army Radio, describing the fire as the worst since Israel was founded in 1948.
“We have to get ready for a long fight and I am not talking about hours, I am talking about days,” he said. “We were not prepared for such a large and cruel blaze. We never had such a fire of these proportions, so strong, with so many dead and wounded.”
Netanyahu instructed his staff to request firefighting help from all of Israel’s allies, according to a text message to journalists.
Most of the dead were caught in a bus carrying prison guards, Prison Authority spokesman Yaron Zamir said on Army Radio. The guards were on their way to help evacuate a prison endangered by the flames, Rosenfeld said.
“The flames engulfed the bus and those who tried to escape were burned alive,” fireman Dudu Vanunu told Channel 2 television.
Television stations broadcast footage of the mangled, gray skeleton of the bus. Flames shooting above the tops of trees could be seen.
About 40 people were killed in the blaze, according to Moti Bukjin, spokesman for the Zaka rescue service, and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
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