Israel — Israel’s largest-ever bushfire raged uncontrollably Friday night, taunting efforts by exhausted fire teams to battle the blaze as it threatened areas previously untouched by the flames.
By late evening, around 36 hours after it began, the fire, which broke out on the Carmel hill southeast of the northern city of Haifa, had claimed 42 lives, destroyed more than 8,500 acres of parched, drought-stricken land and devoured more than four million trees, and forced 17,000 people from 14 locations to flee their homes.
Aided by unseasonably warm weather and strong winds, which showed no signs of abetting overnight, the flames were approaching Haifa University, which sits atop the Carmel, on the southeastern outskirts of the city.
The adjacent suburb of Daniya, some of whose residents had been evacuated shortly after midnight Friday, was under renewed threat, with the blaze only one kilometre away, though officials said there was no immediate danger to homes there.
New, smaller fires broke out during the day, while the main blaze was reigniting in some locations where it had been doused earlier, but with the fall of darkness around 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), firefighting aircraft, some of which had been dispatched from European countries, were forced to halt operations.
The planes were set to resume flying at first light Saturday, reinforced by aircraft capable of carrying larger loads of water, which had arrived during the day in Israel. Hopes were especially being pinned on a Russian airplane that landed late Friday in Israel with a capacity of 42,000 litres.
Fire crews on the ground were expected to work throughout the night but with little hope of being able to contain the fire, much less extinguish it.
National Police Commissioner David Cohen told journalists Friday evening that it was impossible to say the fire was under control, but he hoped by Saturday this would change.
He said the fire had one ignition point, and it was possible that by Saturday special investigators could determine whether it was caused by deliberate arson or negligence.
Haifa Fire Service spokesman Chezi Levy told reporters that the ignition point had been burning garbage in a yard of a house in the village of Usafiyah.
Police Friday afternoon arrested two men who reportedly threw a Molotov cocktail in the forest close to where the fire was raging. Cohen told journalists later that the two were not linked to the blaze, nor to the fires that had broken out north of Haifa during the day and which were thought to have been the result of arson attacks.
‘We are in the midst of a disaster of international proportions,’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an emergency cabinet session Friday morning in Tel Aviv, before taking off to tour the disaster area by helicopter.
The blaze broke out before noon Thursday. Huge flames sent sparks into the sky, prompting one witness to remark that the Carmel hill looked like ‘a volcano’.
Thirty-six of the 42 fatalities were prison service cadets, sent to help evacuate inmates from a prison in the path of the flames Thursday. Their bus was engulfed by the fire, which left nothing more than the charred frame of the vehicle.
A nature photographer, Roni Sofer, who headed the convoy in his jeep, described to the daily Yediot Ahronot how ‘at one of the bends in the road, there was again a wall of fire facing me, about 30 meters high, an unfathomable sight’.
Survivors said most of the cadets managed to get off the bus but did not stand a chance of outracing the fire by foot.
Some 900 inmates from two prisons in the area were safely evacuated.
Four Greek planes and a Hercules cargo plane from Bulgaria with some 150 firefighters on board joined the effort. Countries such as Turkey and Cyprus sent around 20 planes and helicopters and other equipment arrived Friday.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio that Israel had turned to Germany for help, which in turn had asked Turkey for assistance, prompting Ankara to send two planes – despite its marred relations with Israel.
US President Barack Obama has offered condolences to the families of the victims. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called Israeli President Shimon Peres to express condolences.