Israel — Millions of Israelis breathed a collective sigh of relief on Sunday after firefighters from here and abroad succeeded in overcoming the worst fire disaster the country has known, which killed 41 people, destroyed at least 50,000 dunams of Carmel forestland, damaged 250 homes, and caused over NIS 200 million in damage, according to initial estimates.
A number of small fires remained active in the Mount Carmel region, and the fleet of international fire planes that proved decisive in putting an end to the fires on Sunday, including a Boeing 747 supertanker leased by the government from a US company, remained on standby as night fell.
Weather forecasters said rain would likely help put out the remaining fires overnight.
From our point of view, the danger has passed for all the places that were evacuated, fire official Boaz Rakia said.
The relief quickly gave way to mourning, as 24 fire casualties 22 Prisons Service staff and two policemen were buried on Sunday.
As smoke rose from the smoldering forests of the Carmel, public pressure on the government and anger mounted over decades of neglect of the Fire and Rescue Service.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said he would soon publish a grave report on the shortcomings that led to the present state of the service. He was only sorry that warnings about the dangers that became evident in recent days had been disregarded by the authorities.
Magen David Adom officials said 33 people suffering from fire-related injuries were evacuated to hospitals during the four-day blaze.
Three of the injured including Haifa police chief Asst.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer were in critical condition, while three others were moderately hurt and the remainder lightly hurt.
Prof. Avi Perevolotsky, a senior researcher at the Ministry of Agricultures Agricultural Research Organization, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that it would take around 40 years for the Carmel forests to recover.
All of the estimated four to five million trees incinerated in the inferno will be replaced naturally, Perevolotsky said, due to a fire-coping mechanism evolved by trees over millions of years, such as seeds that take flight during blazes and survive the flames, and underground branches that can also survive. But, he stressed, it will take decades for the forests to regain their natural heights.
It will be a long time before the view we were used to in the Carmel will return, Perevolotsky said.
Experts knew that this was the most likely area for a fire of this type, he added.
At 5 p.m. on Sunday, police notified residents of the worst-hit area that they could return to their homes in Nir Etzion, Ein Hod, Ein Hud and Kibbutz Beit Oren.
Emergency officials said 250 homes suffered extensive damage, mostly in Ein Hod and Beit Oren. Live TV broadcasts carried images of shocked residents returning to Ein Hod and inspecting blackened homes.
The government has estimated that around 70 homes will have to be torn down and rebuilt, and allocated funds for mobile homes for displaced residents.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu placed a two-month time limit for the reconstruction process.
Meanwhile, Israel Police Insp.- Gen. David Cohen paid tribute to Lior Boker and Itzik Melina, the two police officers who died trying to rescue a burning bus of Prisons Service staff on Thursday, and who were buried on Sunday.
They were esteemed and loved officers who left their mark on the Northern District through years of achievement and contribution, Cohen said. We all salute them.
Cohen added that the Israeli people are all praying for the wellbeing of Haifa police chief Tomer, who was still fighting for her life.
Also on Sunday, the Haifa Magistrates Court extended the custody of two teenage brothers from Usfiya who were arrested Saturday on suspicion of having started the massive fire through negligence during a family outing in the forest.
The suspects father said, however, that the boys were wrongly accused.
We wont allow two good kids to be framed with this case…. They had nothing to do with the fire, they didnt even know about it.
One of them was sleeping and the other was in school, he said.
The investigation will continue in the coming weeks.
Some Druse leaders have expressed anger over what they described as attempts to scapegoat members of their community for the disaster.