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For Israeli fireman, a devastating scene at forest blaze

by Staff Writers
Haifa, Israel (AFP) Dec 3, 2010
Israeli fireman Albert Munis and other members of his unit marvelled at the landscape and the glorious view when they arrived at the Carmel forest less than a week ago for a training session.

When they returned to the area on Friday, along with hundreds of others sent to fight a fire raging through the forest, the contrast could not have been more stark.

"We just saw black, a lot of black," an exhausted-looking Munis told AFP at the temporary command centre set up in Haifa University, describing the air as filled with choking smoke.

Last time, they had all been amazed by the vista, said the burly firefighter. Coming back to see it all burning was a huge shock.

"Today we just couldn't believe what we saw. It was a very sad sight," he said, the skies overhead buzzing with activity as firefighting planes from around the globe flew water-bombing sorties over the burning hillsides.

The blaze, which has killed at least 41 people and devastated more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land, was still burning out of control 24 hours after it started in the Carmel region, near the northern city of Haifa.

Israel's meagre firefighting services were under enormous strain on Friday as they battled the worst fire in the country's 62-year history.

"Anyone who can hold a hose has been called up to the fire station," Munis said, adding that his unit had arrived on Friday morning to relieve colleagues who had toiled for 24 hours without a break.

Israel has a nationwide firefighting force of around 1,500 officers, a number considered woefully inadequate to deal with the inferno, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appeal urgently for international help.

And the force is also under-equipped, lacking a significant stock of vehicles and running low on reserves of firefighting materials such as retardant after a dry summer that sparked a series of forest fires.

"What we really need for fires like this are planes and helicopters," said Munis, who lives in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.

"We are managing to cope with the edges of the fire but the core, the burning mass, can only be stopped with planes and Israel doesn't have them."

Several miles down the road, acrid black smoke continued to billow into the air, making it difficult to breathe and stinging the eyes of everyone in the area, an AFP correspondent said.

Huge quantities of ash could be seen falling from the skies, leaving a greyish-white covering on the heads of everyone in the area, he said.

By Friday morning, firefighting aircraft, equipment and personnel from Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Britain were in Israel.

Dressed in a navy uniform, with a hi-visibility red jacket, Munis said he had even seen firemen from neighbouring Jordan battling the blaze.

The reinforcements, he said, were key to getting the fire under control.

"You can see that slowly the flames are thinning out, you can start to see more sky, less smoke, which means apparently that we are starting to succeed," Munis said.

"I don't know if you could say it's under control but they are starting to reduce the fire."

The tragedy has shocked Israel and prompted fierce criticism of Netanyahu's government, but Munis said morale at his fire station was high.

"We were arguing at the station over who would come. Anyone who was told to stay behind was sad because everybody wanted to come," he said.

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Sehwan, Pakistan (AFP) Dec 3, 2010
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