Jerusalem asks Greece, Cyprus, Croatia for firefighting help; heavy winds drive third day of flames
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that there were signs that some of the wildfires sweeping across Israel were deliberate acts of arson as he called for foreign assistance to help douse the flames.
“There is also some evidence of arson,” Netanyahu said as he visited the Fire and Rescue Service coastal district forward command center, where he was briefed on ongoing efforts to quell the blazes by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and police chief Roni Alsheich.
“Our first goal is saving lives and I ask residents to do exactly what the authorities ask of them. Our second goal is putting out the fires,” Netanyahu told reporters. He gave no further details on the alleged arson.
A Jerusalem fire inspector told Army Radio that two fires in the area of the capital were likely caused by negligence and were not set deliberately. However, he said, fires in other parts of the country may have been arson.
Raging fires have destroyed homes and caused mass evacuations in several different sites across Israel over the last 36 hours, spurred by unusually high winds and dry conditions.
Officials warned it was going to get worse as weather conditions deteriorate in the next few days, prompting the call for outside help amid fears local firefighting resources would be unable to cope. Planes are expected from Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Russia, Italy and possibly Turkey.
Israel had been forced to request foreign assistance before, with teams from Greece, Cyprus and Russia helping out during the 2010 massive forest fire on Mount Carmel, just south of Haifa. The deaths of 44 people made it the gravest blaze in the country’s history.
Since then, Israel has boosted its firefighting resources and now has its own fleet of planes, but they are struggling to deal with blazes raging in several different locations from northern Israel to the Jerusalem region.
On Wednesday they were battling a large fire in the Jerusalem hills, which forced residents of the village of Nataf, west of the capital, to evacuate their homes. Firefighters were battling the blaze, which had been stoked by strong winds, with 25 teams and four planes.
Children at local schools and some of Nataf’s hundreds of residents were evacuated to the community center in the adjacent village of Abu Ghosh. Nearby, residents of Neve Ilan and Mevo Horon were put on an evacuation alert if the flames continued to spread.
Three homes in Nataf were reportedly destroyed, but a village official told the Ynet news site there were no injuries.
By early afternoon, authorities said Nataf homes were no longer in danger, though residents were still instructed to stay away.
Four construction workers paving a road near the village were detained by police in connection to the blaze. A statement from police said investigators were looking into whether negligence at the work site led to the fire.
Meanwhile, firefighters in Zichron Yaakov continued to battle a massive blaze that had engulfed dozens of homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents a day earlier.
The blazes near Zichron and Nataf were the latest in a series of brush fires across the country over the last 36 hours that authorities have blamed on high winds and dry conditions.
The fire in Zichron destroyed at least 10 homes, and eight people, including three children, were treated for smoke inhalation at a local hospital. Some 3,000 residents of the neighborhoods of Har Eden, Givat Zamarin and the surrounding area who were evacuated late Tuesday night were told their homes would remain off-limits for at least several days.
“We expect that in the coming days residents will not be able to return due to the high winds, which present a real risk of loss of life,” said Maj.-Gen. Amos Yaakov, commander of the Coastal District police.
Yaakov said some 30 firefighting teams, 12 military firefighting units and four planes were working to tamp down the fire.
Meanwhile a fire official told Army Radio that Zichron was warned repeatedly, including a few weeks ago, that homes were built too near to woodlands and given a fire safety plan that needed to be urgently acted upon. The official said it was not implemented because of budget issues.
Also Wednesday morning, firefighters battled a massive blaze that neared homes in the West Bank settlement of Dolev, northwest of Jerusalem.
The flames, reportedly reaching 20 meters in height, were extinguished by 21 firefighting units and local volunteers who worked throughout the night. Three trailers were reportedly damaged by the fire.
On Monday a forest fire led to the evacuation of the Neve Shalom community outside Jerusalem. Residents of the coexistence community were told they could return to their homes late Tuesday morning after firefighters successfully beat back the fire before it reached the village.