Israel — Foreign firefighters are rushing to Israel’s aid in battling an unprecedented wildfire that’s killed 41 people and threatens to engulf the country’s third-largest city, Haifa.
The help includes expert firefighting teams and aircraft from Israel’s erstwhile Muslim ally — Turkey — and some of its Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, with whom the Jewish state has peace treaties. Two Turkish helicopters landed in Israel this morning, and more are en route.
International firefighters aid in extinguishing the wildfire over Ein Hod in northern Israel.
The fire — the biggest and deadliest in Israel’s 62-year history — began early Thursday in the parched Carmel Mountains and has burned more than 10,000 acres in 24 hours. Most of the 41 people killed were prison guards whose bus was incinerated on their way to rescue inmates trapped by the blaze. Paramedics and police also were injured or missing. More than 15,000 residents have been evacuated, the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper reported.
“I really appreciate Turkey’s help; we will find a way to express our appreciation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told The Jerusalem Post while visiting fire survivors at a hospital in Haifa. He called Greece’s prime minister a “real friend” and also thanked the leaders of Cyprus, Britain, Bulgaria and Russia for their help.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told Israel Radio that the country is dealing with a disaster “like we have never known before.” He also charged that there’s a constant shortage of firefighting aircraft in Israel and that “nothing ever happens here until disaster strikes.”
Special firefighting aircraft are due to land from Greece, France, Britain, Spain, Russia, Turkey, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia and Azerbaijan, Lieberman said. The New York City fire department has also pledged to send help.
President Barack Obama said U.S. firefighters are on standby to help. “That’s what friends do for each other,” Obama said. He told about 500 guests at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony Thursday at the White House that America is “offering our deepest condolences to the families [and] loved ones” of the victims of the fire, according to Agence France-Presse.
Turkey’s firefighting assistance is especially significant given recently rocky relations between the two countries, after nine Turkish activists were killed in an Israeli commando raid on a flotilla trying to deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza in May.
The University of Haifa and several luxury hotels in the northern coastal city have been evacuated ahead of the fire’s possible path. An upscale suburb on the city’s outskirts has also been emptied, and authorities briefly closed Highway 4, a major route connecting Haifa with the rest of the country, as plumes of black smoke obscured cars’ visibility.
“Evacuations will be conducted as needed, with sufficient advance warning,” Netanyahu told Haaretz. “We do not want any more injuries.”
Israel takes pride in its own rescue services and has sent quick reaction teams to disasters around the world, such as Haiti’s earthquake in January. But with a shortage of firefighting resources at home, Lieberman said the Carmel fire is nowhere near under control. It’s only with foreign help that Israeli might be able to contain the blaze by Saturday night, he said.
“The size of the fire is huge, the wind is very strong, and there is a problem accessing the mountains and valleys,” Yoram Levi, a spokesman for Israel’s fire and rescue service, told The Associated Press. “We don’t have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water. It is not enough for a large-scale fire.”