Israel — Israeli and international fire fighters are battling to extinguish a massive brush fire raging through the Carmel Mountain nature reserve south of Haifa which has caused 42 deaths and forced the evacuation of 17,000 people, leaving a charcoal trail of destroyed homes, farm property, businesses, vegetation and wildlife across an area of 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres).
The 42 dead were young police cadets from the Israeli Prisons Service Authority heading to the Damon jail to help evacuate the inmates when the bus in which they were traveling was trapped by the flames and engulfed in the conflagration.
Two kibbutz villages Beit Oren and Nir Etzion have been razed to the ground and their inhabitants left homeless.
Firefighters also battled flames approaching Haifa University and the suburban outskirts of Haifa.
The Carmel nature reserve is one of Israels principal forest recreation areas supporting a prosperous tourism industry for residents of Haifa, Israels third largest city and the countrys northern inhabitants. The fierce wild fire broke out on Thursday morning, driven by hot gusty winds, and is still raging at six different locations.
It could take a week to put out the blaze, a senior official of Israels fire fighting services said over the weekend.
A series of smaller, unconnected brush fires have since broken out near Nazareth and other locations in Lower Galilee, which Police Commissioner David Cohen said may have been caused deliberately by arson.
At Israels request, international fire fighting teams and fire fighting planes and equipment were rushed to the disaster area from France, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, alongside two firefighting helicopters from Britain and one from Switzerland, and they have been fighting all weekend alongside the Israeli crews to bring the blaze under control.
Russia has sent in two Ilyushin-76 fire fighting planes each holding 42,000 litres of water, and the United States is dispatching an Evergreen supertanker with a 95,000 litre water load operated by a private American aviation company and a team of fire fighting experts to help douse the inferno.
Egypt and Jordan also offered their fire fighting manpower assistance. Police fire investigators have detained two teenage brothers from the Druze village Isfiya, also threatened by the fire, whom they suspect negligently caused the Carmel blaze when they carelessly threw the embers of the narquila pipe they had been smoking in the backyard of their home into the nearby forest causing the sparks to leap onto the trees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the Carmel forest blaze a national human and ecological catastrophe, the worst in the countrys fire history.
Costs to the Israeli taxpayer for total damages including compensation are estimated at CAN$280 million.
An imminent report by the State Ombudsman, amidst mutual accusations between the relevant government authorities, blames Israeli governments for years of neglect and lack of budgets to boost manpower needs and to purchase advanced fire fighting and aerial water equipment to replace obsolete equipment in use.