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Middle east

Israel accepts foreign aid in tackling deadly forest fire

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-12-04

Israel was forced Friday to accept foreign emergency aid – including that of the Palestinian Territories – after its firefighters were unable to contain a huge forest fire which swept woodland near the port of Haifa, killing at least 41 people.

AP - Responding to an unprecedented Israeli distress call, aircraft from Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Britain dumped sea water and flame retardant on a woodland inferno that has killed dozens, displaced thousands and ravaged one of the Holy Land’s most prized forests.

As the country mourned the dead, Israelis  - long known for their high-tech society and vaunted rescue missions abroad  - were stunned Friday at their firefighters’ helplessness in quelling the blaze, the worst forest fire in the nation’s history.
Still, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - embattled over the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort - it was also a chance to show that Israel was perhaps not so isolated after all. Even the Palestinian Authority pitched in with firefighting units.
Suspicions of arson persisted on Day Two of the blaze as it rampaged through the Carmel Forest near Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Police said small brush fires that broke out Friday appeared to have been deliberately set, though police chief David Cohen said it was possible the main fire erupted because of carelessness.
Anguished families began burying the 41 dead - most of them prison guards who perished Thursday when the blaze engulfed a bus that was transporting them to evacuate a prison. Fewer than half had been identified by late Friday because bodies had been burned beyond recognition.
The human tragedy was compounded by the loss of precious woodland in a country where only 7 percent of the land is forested. Tree-planting has an almost mystical quality here: For decades, Jews the world over have dropped coins into blue-and-white boxes of the Jewish National Fund, which has planted 240 million trees in the Carmel Forest and elsewhere across Israel since its founding in 1901.
Though the scorched woodland covered an area of only about eight square miles (21 square kilometers) - or some 1 percent of Israel’s forest land - the fire was felt as a deep national loss.
Outside Haifa, wind-driven flames towering nearly 100 feet (30 meters) turned the sky crimson as they spread across hilly pine forest toward the Mediterranean Sea. Flying back and forth, helicopters and planes scooped up sea water and dumped it on the blaze. Turkish planes scattered powdery white flame retardant over the smoky hills, dotted with charred banana trees and cypress trees stripped of their leaves.
The eruption of the blaze Thursday overwhelmed Israel’s small firefighting force and prompted an unprecedented call for international help from a country better known for helping in other countries’ disaster zones.
Yoram Levy, a spokesman for Israel’s fire and rescue service, said firefighters battling strong winds were having trouble accessing the mountains and valleys.
“We don’t have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water,” Levy said. “It is not enough for a large-scale fire.”
Some 100 firefighters from Bulgaria arrived as well as fire extinguishing planes and crews from Greece, Britain and Cyprus, Israeli officials said. Additional planes were offered by other EU nations and Russia. The U.S. was sending a team of firefighting experts as well as tons of fire retardant and foam, and pledged to help with additional aircraft.
President Barack Obama discussed the fire and expressed his condolences for the loss of life in a telephone call to Netanyahu from Air Force One after it departed from Afghanistan. Obama had made an unannounced holiday visit to U.S. troops there.
Israel’s Mideast neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, also sent firefighters and equipment.
Netanyahu thanked the many states that stepped in to help Israel, saying the “one bright spot” in the calamity was “the solidarity of the peoples of the world with the people of Israel.”
The message had special resonance in a country where people perceive increased hostility from a world eager to see creation of a Palestinian state.
“The international response to our call was exceptional,” Netanyahu said during a visit to the north. “It demonstrates that there is affection for Israel and identification with it from all corners of the Earth.”
The help that drew the most attention came from Turkey, once a close ally but now a vocal critic - most recently because of a deadly Israeli raid in May on a flotilla of activists bound for blockaded Gaza, the Palestinian territory run by Hamas militants. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed.
For the first time since the raid, Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him for Turkey’s help. “I am certain it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries,” his office quoted him as saying.
But Erdogan was quick to reply that the help did not mean ties would return to normal and that his country still expected an apology and compensation for the victims. “If these matters are settled this could start a positive process for the future,” he said.
By early evening, the fire still raged out of control and some 17,000 people had been evacuated from 14 communities and facilities, said Cohen, the police chief. Most were from outside Haifa, a city of 265,000.



AFP - Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers fought Friday to control a massive forest fire that has killed 41 people, as global help poured in to battle the biggest inferno in the country's history.
As high winds drove the blaze towards the northern port city of Haifa, police and medical officials said rescuers had recovered another body, taking the toll to 41, and warned the number of dead could still rise.
"As of this morning, we have recovered 41 bodies, and there are still three people missing," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, adding there were 16 people injured, including three seriously and one critically.
Rosenfeld said 15,000 people had been evacuated as the fire incinerated more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land and reached the southern part of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city with a population of 265,000.
Police and rescue workers confirmed most of the dead were prison guards on board a bus, who had been trying to evacuate prisoners from a facility in the forest.
"The bus tried to turn around and some tried to get away but they were caught by the fire from two different directions," Rosenfeld told AFP, saying two police officers and third person were still missing.
"We still haven't searched areas like Beit Oren (kibbutz) which were very badly burned so we are not sure what we are going to find, and the toll may still rise," he said.
At the temporary command centre set up at Haifa University, convoys of fire engines were roaring in and out and police were struggling to direct traffic, all under a huge mushroom cloud of smoke, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
"It looks like a nuclear explosion," observed one bystander.
As the Carmel mountains continued to burn more than 24 hours after the blaze started, at least four Canadair water bombers could be seen flying through the smoke-choked skies, pouring water and fire retardant onto the vast flames.
Two fire-fighting choppers and three small planes were also involved in the huge task of curbing the inferno.
There are only 1,500 firefighters operating across Israel, a number widely accepted as woefully inadequate for a country of 7.6 million people, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urgently appeal for international help.
By early Friday, five Greek planes, a Bulgarian craft with 100 firefighters, a Cypriot plane and helicopter and a British helicopter were in Israel, a military spokesman said. A second British helicopter was due to arrive soon.
The Israeli army said at least eight international fire-fighting planes and three helicopters were involved in the operation, as well as 150 firefighters from various countries. The foreign ministry confirmed it had received additional pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey.
US President Barack Obama expressed his "deepest condolences" for the victims and said US firefighters were on standby, and Australia also said its forces were ready to help.
Visiting the scene late on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the blaze as "a fire on an international scale."
He convened an emergency session of the cabinet in Tel Aviv on Friday morning, after which he was expected to visit the injured at Haifa's Rambam hospital with Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
Rescue officials said firefighters had still not managed to control the fire, and video footage showed much of the horizon engulfed in flames, with plumes of thick black smoke pouring into the air.
Fire and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, which swept through the pine forest covering the Carmel hill ridge, one of Israel's most popular beauty spots.
Yoram Levy, a spokesman for the fire service, said the blaze appeared to have broken out in a rubbish dump in the Druze village of Isfiya, an account supported by witness testimony reported by the Haaretz daily.
Pilot Alon Chaim said he had spotted a small fire outside Isfiya shortly after 11:00 am (0900 GMT) on Thursday and had alerted the fire department.
"I flew over the fire, which at that point was a tiny blaze," he told the paper, saying the fire could have been put out very quickly.
The Israeli press was filled with scathing criticism of the government for the country's lack of preparation.
"The wind, it seems, is the only thing directing anything in this country," commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.


Date created : 2010-12-04


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