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Thousands battle to tame Israel's worst fire as toll hits 41

Press blasts the 'Yom Kippur' of Israel's firefighters
Jerusalem (AFP) Dec 3, 2010 - Israel's complete lack of readiness to handle a brutal fire ravaging huges swathes of forest near the northern city of Haifa, was on Friday blasted as catastrophic by the press. "The enormous blaze that broke out on the Carmel (hill ridge) will be remembered as the Yom Kippur War of the fire and rescue service, who were not prepared to counter a disaster of such magnitude," commentator Aluf Benn wrote in the Haaretz daily as the death toll hit 41. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 is widely accepted as a black day in the history of the Jewish state, whose famed military intelligence services completely failed to notice Egypt and Syria had massed their forces on the border.

As thousands of rescuers, police and troops continued massive efforts to tame the inferno, more than a dozen countries pledged immediate assistance in response to an urgent personal appeal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Yesterday it turned out that Israel is not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front," Benn wrote. "Under such circumstances, it is best for Israel not to embark on war against Iran, which will involve thousands of missiles being fired on the home front." After raging unchecked for nearly 24 hours, police and firefighters said the blaze was still not under control and spreading after incinerating more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land and forcing the evacuation of more than 13,000 people.

Ben Caspit, a commentator in the Maariv daily, heaped acid criticism on the authorities, saying Israel had been caught with "its pants down." "A country above which hover spy satellites, a country to which foreign sources attribute chilling military operations around the globe, a country that plans to attack the nuclear infrastructure of a distant regional power, a country that leads the world in hi-tech and whose economy emerges the least damaged from the global crisis, is also the country that has its firefighting material run out after seven hours, a country whose fire-trucks date back to the previous century, and a country that therefore finds itself caught, standing before the flames, with its pants down. "A Third World country. Today, who knows, we may get a firefighting plane from the great power of Cyprus."
by Staff Writers
Haifa, Israel (AFP) Dec 3, 2010
Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers fought Friday to control a massive forest fire that has already killed 41, as global help poured in to battle the biggest inferno in the country's history.

As firefighters battled high winds, which were driving the blaze towards the northern port city of Haifa, police and medical sources 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, saying there were 16 people injured, including three seriously hurt and one in critical condition.

Rosenfeld said 13,000 people had been evacuated from the blaze which had so far incinerated more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land and had already 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 coach 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.

He added that two police officers and third person were still missing, and warned the toll could still rise.

"We still haven't searched areas like (kibbutz) Beit Oren which were very badly burned so we are not sure what we are going to find, and the toll may still rise," he said.

Shortly after midnight, police said strong winds had pushed the fire to the edge of southern Haifa, Israel's third largest city, with a population of more than 265,000 people.

However, early on Friday, Israel's Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch was cautiously optimistic that efforts to curb the blaze were taking effect.

"Seen from the air, the situation is better than what you can see on the ground," he told Channel 10 private television.

As thousands of firefighters, police and army troops continued efforts to tame the blaze, offers of international help poured in, with more than a dozen countries pledging to send firefighting planes, helicopters and personnel to help.

By early Friday, five Greek planes, a Bulgarian craft with 100 firefighters, and a Cypriot plane and helicopter had reached Israel, a military spokesman said.

The foreign ministry said it had also received pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Britain, 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 to help, while Australia also said its forces were ready to help.

Visiting the scene late on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the blaze as "a fire on an international scale."

He was expected to convene an emergency session of the cabinet in Tel Aviv on Friday morning to discuss the tragedy.

Dramatic footage showed flames rushing across the forest floor, engulfing trees and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.

An AFP photographer counted at least 20 charred bodies lying on orange stretchers by the side of a road, their clothes burnt off their bodies and only their boots intact.

Other footage showed the gutted remains of the bus, which one witness said had been consumed by the flames.

"Anyone who's ever seen a firestorm will know. They could not survive it; they had no protection; they just fell to the road and burned alive," fireman Dudu Vanunu told Channel 2 television.

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.

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Forest fire kills 40 as it rips through northern Israel
Haifa, Israel (AFP) Dec 2, 2010
A devastating fire killed at least 40 people on Thursday when it ripped through a forest near Israel's northern city of Haifa, prompting urgent calls for international help to tackle the blaze. Police said at least 40 people died in the inferno, which officials said was the worst in Israel's 62-year history. Israel's Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance service confirmed they had recovered 3 ... read more

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