Israel — Israeli firefighters could bring a deadly wildfire sweeping through precious northern woodlands since last week under control Sunday, a fire service spokesman said.
Two teenage brothers were arrested Saturday on suspicion they caused the blaze, which has killed 41 people, through negligence. The minors are to be brought before a court Sunday for an extension of their detention, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said he could not confirm Israeli media reports that the boys inadvertently sparked the blaze with a bonfire and a water pipe.
The fire, the worst in Israel’s history, has been tearing through the Carmel forest near Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa, since Thursday. It has caught the country which prides itself on its technological prowess, ability to improvise and rescue expertise woefully unprepared.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appealed to the international community for help, and countries in the immediate region and as far afield as Russia and the U.S. have dispatched planes, firefighters and materials to help battle the blaze. Israel Radio reported that Australia would also send an aerial firefighting team and firefighting chemicals.
“The general picture is better, more optimistic,” firefighters’ spokesman Boaz Rakia told a news conference Sunday. While it will take days to extinguish the fire completely, he said he hoped it might be brought under control Sunday.
Although the forest fire is small by international standards, it is considered a calamity in Israel, where only 7 percent of the land is wooded. The Carmel forest makes up 5 percent of that forested land and nearly half of it has been destroyed in the fire.
Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said he had no details about the circumstances that led to the fire. But he said the two arrested teenagers “are suspected of negligence at the scene where the fire began (and) of causing the huge fire.”
The boys’ aunt told Army Radio that her nephews were not responsible for the blaze. “They are innocent, they didn’t do it. They are good, quiet, innocent, educated boys from a good home. They don’t smoke water pipes, like the rumor that’s spreading,” said the aunt, who was identified only as Abir.
A string of apparently unrelated brush fires has broken out in northern Israel and the Jerusalem area since Thursday and police suspect arson in some of those cases. Those fires have been quickly contained. Two suspects have been arrested in connection with a Jerusalem-area fire Sunday morning, Rosenfeld said.
Grieving families continued to bury the dead on Sunday. Most were prison guards whose bus was engulfed by flames Thursday while rushing to evacuate a prison. A 16-year-old volunteer firefighter also died while trying to save people aboard the bus.
More than 17,000 people had been evacuated from their homes before officials gave some of them the all-clear to return on Saturday.
Israeli firefighters have complained for years of undersized crews, outdated equipment and minimal supplies. While Israel has a highly sophisticated air force, its firefighting force doesn’t have a single plane. It ran out of flame retardants on the first day of the blaze.
Netanyahu said Saturday that Israel would form an airborne firefighting force. Later Sunday, his Cabinet is to hold its weekly meeting in the north in an expression of solidarity with stricken residents and to convey the message that the government plans to compensate victims and rehabilitate the area, he said.
The government’s failure to be prepared for a large-scale fire has prompted a round of finger-pointing at various officials from Netanyahu down, but there is little expectation that heads will roll.
“Ultimately, the blame is going to be pinned on the low man on the totem pole, that very same family from Usifiya, whose hookah burned down our Carmel, and not on the people responsible for this unfathomable and unforgivable failure, in which the entire state of Israel doesn’t have any recourse except for the planes owned by the superpowers Cyprus and Greece which were urgently called in to put out our fire,” commentator Sima Kadmon wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.