Israel — Prime Minister Julia Gillard said today a team of aviation experts would be deployed within 24 hours to help control and direct fire-fighting aircraft.
It comes following a formal request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help battle the forest fire, which began last week near the northern city of Haifa.
The team will be led by Victoria’s chief fire officer Ewan Waller, who was one of those at the helm during Black Saturday.
A local resident carrying a bucket runs through a burnt area in Ein Hod, northern Israel, as the worst blaze in the country’s history licked through hilly forests near Haifa.
Australia is also making moves to provide chemical fire retardants if Israel requests for them, and will leave the door open to possibly providing more resources.
After a day in which more than a dozen international firefighting planes and helicopters worked tirelessly to douse the flames, officials were cautiously optimistic that the tide might finally be turning.
“I think that we are on the way to controlling it, but I don’t want to tempt fate,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a news conference, shortly after nightfall local time.
“There has been outstanding cooperation here today,” he said, noting that 10 international firefighting teams had joined the operation with the number set to double today.
Israel was also expecting the arrival overnight of a Boeing Supertanker, the largest aerial firefighting plane in the world which is the only plane to be able to fly sorties at night, he said.
The fire, racing through the pine forests on Mount Carmel just south of the port city of Haifa, is the biggest inferno in Israel’s 62-year history.
So far, it has claimed 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people out of their homes.
Most of the dead were prison guards, along with two policemen and a 16-year-old volunteer for the fire service, police said, noting that 17 people were injured and four still missing.
Earlier, fire chiefs also spoke of a slight improvement in the situation.
“We have to be very careful when we speak of controlling the fire but we can say, with all the usual precautions, that we can detect a tendency that the fire is weakening,” said Boaz Rakia, one of the head firemen.
But he warned against “premature optimism.”
As darkness fell and the planes stopped working, high winds fanned the flames, with reports of the blaze spreading towards the Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel and fires breaking out in other areas.
However, in other areas where the threat was believed to be contained, such as Tirat HaCarmel, police allowed some people to return to homes they had evacuated.
As the massive operation continued, police said they arrested two youths from the Druze village of Isfiya on suspicion of starting the fire “through negligence” by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic.
Throughout the day, planes and helicopters from around the globe had flown countless sorties, backed by smaller aircraft which were releasing gallons of fire retardant in the hope of stopping the fire which is tearing through a vast reserve south of Haifa.
On the ground, more than 550 firefighters worked round the clock – around 450 Israelis backed up by some 100 firemen from Bulgaria and a number from Jordan.
As some 16 countries pledged assistance, Netanyahu said aerial reinforcements would be the only way to extinguish the fire.
“It is clear that the battle to stop the fire will be decided from the air,” his office quoted him as saying.
So far, 13 international planes and helicopters have been helping Israel battle the blaze: five planes from Greece, two from Turkey, two from Russia and one from France, backed by two helicopters from a British military base in Cyprus, which itself has sent a police helicopter.
Another nine were to arrive late last night, including two planes from the United States, two from France and two from Russia, as well as two helicopters from Russia and one from Switzerland.
A similar number was due to touch down today – five from Spain, three from the United States and one from Germany, Netanyahu’s office said.
Among those offering help were Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who offered the three units from the Palestinian civil defence forces, Netanyahu told the press conference, saying he had expressed his appreciation.
US President Barack Obama also promised to send 45 tonnes of fire retardant as well as 12,000 litres of class A foam to help battle the Carmel blaze, as well as experts and firefighting equipment, a White House aide said.
By nightfall on Friday, the fire had incinerated more than 10,000 acres of land, with flames reaching the southern outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city.