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Firemen battle to check Israel's worst-ever bushfire

Friday December 03, 2010 05:12:38 PM, DPA

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Massive bushfire in Israel, 40 killed

A massive brushfire, the worst in Israel's history, raged unchecked for more than eight hours Thursday, burning thousands of acres of land, forcing villages to evacuate, and killing up to 40 people when their bus was engulfed  

Tel Aviv: An estimated 13,000 people had been forced to flee their homes in northern Israel Friday morning, as the worst bushfire in Israel's history entered its second day, leaving 40 dead.

The blaze had destroyed hundreds of hectares of land and was still not under control, after breaking out before noon Thursday on the slopes of Carmel Hill, east of the northern port city of Haifa, Israel's third largest city.

Strong winds were pushing the flames westwards and firefighters were trying to prevent it from reaching and crossing route number 4, which runs at the foot of the Carmel hill from Haifa southbound to Tel Aviv.

Fire and rescue chiefs told reporters that as day had broken, 100 vehicles and four planes, which could not been deployed in the dark, were now being used in the effort.

Foreign firefighting aircraft began landing at the Ramat Aviv military airport in northern Israel, with two planes from Greece and Bulgaria already on the ground. Around 20 more from other countries including Turkey, Cyprus and Spain were expected to join throughout the day.

Additional assistance was also on its way from Britain, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Romania and Jordan, and the US was sending a Boeing 747 with fire-retardant chemicals.

Some 36 of the 40 fatalities were prison service cadets, sent to help evacuate prisoners from a jail in the path of the flames, whose bus was engulfed by the inferno.

The others were two police officers, one volunteer fireman, and a civilian. Three other people, including Haifa's police chief, were in critical condition in a Haifa hospital.

In the pre-dawn hours the flames, fanned by strong winds, reached the village of Tirat HaCarmel, whose inhabitants were evacuated Thursday.

Haifa's mayor ordered the evacuation of several streets in the city's most eastern neighbourhood.

Fires had earlier reached four other evacuated villages.

Israel Radio reported that firemen had so far succeeded in halting the advance of the flames at a major road connecting Haifa with Tel Aviv to the south - keeping it away from several other evacuated villages on the coastal plane.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting the area late Thursday, described the fire as "a catastrophe, the likes of which we have not yet known".

"We've lost control of the fire," a spokesman for Haifa's firefighting services said Thursday evening. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said it was impossible to say when the fire would be contained.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama offered condolences to the families of those who had been killed.

"As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster," he told a gathering of US Jewish leaders at the White House for a Hanukkah celebration.

It was still unclear Friday morning whether the fire was the result of an accident or an act of arson.



 

 

 

 

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