Israel's Worst Forest Fire Brought Under Control After 41 Die, 17,000 Flee

Israeli firefighters backed by aircraft from more than a dozen countries succeeded in gaining control over a forest fire that left 41 dead and forced the evacuation of some 17,000 people.

“The two main blazes are under control for the first time since the fire broke out,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by phone. Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Yoram Levy said that “from our perspective the fire is over.”

The fire, which began Dec. 2 and has destroyed more than 10,000 acres of forest, has been described by officials as the worst in the country’s history and forced Israel to call on friendly countries to send support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held his weekly cabinet meeting near the site of the blaze, halted requests abroad to send firefighting planes and helicopters to Israel. He made the statement in a text message to journalists.

Israel received more than 30 firefighting aircraft from the U.S., U.K., Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Turkey, France, Russia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Jordan.

“The only way to deal with such fires is to combine ground forces with air forces both local and foreign,” Netanyahu said, pointing out that Russia and the U.S. have called in aid to fight blazes. “This is also how superpowers behave.” His remarks were broadcast on Army Radio.

Damage Estimate

The daily Ma’ariv estimated fire damage at 985 million shekels ($272 million), without saying how it did the calculation. The government doesn’t yet have an estimate, Shlomi Sheffer, a Finance Ministry spokesman, said by phone.

The Welfare Ministry has allotted about 500 million shekels to municipalities hit by the fire, said Pnina Ben Ami, a spokeswoman. The Finance Ministry set aside several million shekels to help local governments, minister Yuval Steinitz’s office said in an e-mailed statement today.

Most damage to private property is insured and the insurance companies are covered by reinsurance policies, the Finance Ministry said on Dec. 3. Most of the damage to public property is also insured, it said.

“There hasn’t been such a fiasco since the establishment of the state,” said Haim Klein, a former police superintendent said on Army Radio. “We don’t need an inquiry. We need to launch a criminal investigation for criminal negligence.”

Interior Minister Eli Yishai responding to criticism, saying in an interview on Army Radio that “I am responsible for the fire department, but I don’t remember any other minister fighting as much as I have for a budget increase.”

Suspects Arrested

Two suspects under the age of 18 were arrested yesterday for allegedly causing the fire, Rosenfeld said, adding that the blaze appeared to be caused by negligence and not arson.

The fire began in the Carmel hills south of Haifa, a city with a population of 266,000. Exceptionally dry weather created conditions that allowed the flames to spread quickly, said Salman Abu Rukun, an employee of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.

About 12,500 acres of forest have been destroyed by the fire, Efi Stenzler, Chairman of the Jewish National Fund that plants trees in Israel, told Channel 2 television.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net or Alisa Odenheimer in Jerusalem at aodenheimer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Louis Meixler at lmeixler@bloomberg.net

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