Barak Says ‘Worst’ of Northern Forest Fire Behind Israel

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said firefighters backed by international aircraft were succeeding in controlling a forest blaze that killed 41 people and forced the country to call in support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held his weekly Cabinet meeting near the site of the blaze, said he was halting requests to foreign countries to send fire-fighting aircraft and helicopters to Israel. He made the statement in a text message to journalists.

“It looks like we are dealing with the last of the blazes,” Barak said on Army Radio before the Cabinet meeting today. “My assessment is that we will be in control of all of the flames by the end of the day. The worst is behind us.”

The fire, which began Dec. 2 and destroyed more than 10,000 acres of forest, has been described by Israeli officials as the worst in the country’s history. About 20 planes were fighting the blaze, including an Evergreen 747 Super Tanker fire-fighter from the U.S., and there will be more than 30 before dusk, said Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman.

Since the blaze started, Israel has received more than 30 firefighting planes and helicopters 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.

Fire Damage

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 has allotted several million shekels to help local municipalities, 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.”

Budget Increase

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.”

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.

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