After months of battling arson in forests around Jerusalem, an exhausted firefighting force dealt with the largest blaze yet at the entrance to the capital on Tuesday, when a series of fires raged through the valley next to Highway 1.

Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Asaf Abras said from initial investigation, firefighters suspect that arson may have been the cause of the fires due to the proximity of the fires as well as the small window of time in which they occurred.

Forty-six firefighting crews from Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and around the country were called in to battle the fire, which started around 1 p.m. Three people were lightly injured from smoke inhalation at the beginning of the fire, but there were no other injuries.

Embers burn inside a tree near Jerusalem (Photo: Seth Frantzman)

The blaze occurred a week after State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued a scathing report criticizing various government ministries over their ill preparedness for the Carmel Forest fire in December 2010.

Highway 1 was closed to traffic in both directions for two hours as heavy smoke covered the road and the fire crept up towards Mevaseret Zion. Dozens of cars were stranded on Highway 1 as police refused to let drivers continue for fear the flames would leap across the road.

Magen David Adom passed out water to the drivers to avoid dehydration during the hot afternoon.

Smoke from forest fire outside Jerusalem (Photo: Marc Israel Sellem)

Some of those in cars panicked and fled their vehicles, trying to get to Beit Zayit and surrounding villages, as they remembered the bus of Prisons Service guards that got stuck on the highway during the Carmel Forest fire, killing 37 people.

“It was very surreal, we were watching from above and you just saw people streaming out of their cars,” said Abras. “Because the Carmel disaster is so fresh in their minds, they got scared.”

The first fire started near Lifta, an abandoned Arab village at the entrance to Jerusalem. Just as firefighters brought that blaze under control around 2:30 p.m., fires broke out in two separate spots near the Mevaseret Zion suburb of Motza. The fire burned more than 100 dunams (25 acres), including parts of the Einot Telem National Park and olive terraces in the wadi, and blackened much of the area from Lifta to the Old Motza Synagogue on Highway 1 in Emek Ha’arazim.

Abras noted that the topography of the steep wadi made the fire especially dangerous and difficult to control. Fires love to climb, and the fire swept easily up the sides of the wadi towards the homes of Mevaseret Zion. Parts of Ma’aleh Hahamisha and Motza were evacuated during the fire. Magen David Adom raised the warning level to C, the highest warning level, as hundreds of emergency personnel were concentrated in the area.

Abras credited the quick response of the firefighting planes with allowing the firefighters to have control over the fire within five hours. The first planes began dumping water and flame-retardant less than 20 minutes after crews arrived on the scene, he said.

Riky, a Mevaseret Zion resident whose home overlooks the smoking valley, said she first realized the fire was out of control when the firefighting planes started flying overhead at rapid intervals. Riky suspected from the beginning that the fire was a result of arson.

“It didn’t light on its own,” she said. “I saw two points of fire that were not connected. Maybe it was affected by weather and the wind strengthened it, but it didn’t happen on its own.”

Jerusalem firefighters have dealt with a large wave of arson in the last few months. Not counting the fires in the past few days, there have been 1,058 incidents of fires in open areas in the past six weeks. Firefighters have determined that arson was responsible for at least 70 percent of those incidents.

There are usually a total of 4,000 incidents of fires in open areas and forests in the Jerusalem district during the course of a year.

Firefighters received commendations from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for their quick response to the blaze, though opposition leader Shelly Yechimovich (Labor) called on the Knesset to immediately implement the findings from the State Comptroller’s Report, which blasted the Finance Ministry and Interior Ministry for underfunding the Fire and Rescue Services.

“Allow the firefighters to do what they’re good at: saving lives, not begging the finance minister to determine their fate,” she said in a statement released by her office.

Abras said the firefighters and police implemented a number of lessons learned in the Carmel fire, including improved communications between police, the Jewish National Fund, Magen David Adom and other rescue services, and firefighters. He also said since the December 2010 disaster, firefighters have worked to provide a strong initial response of at least four crews for a forest fire, rather than sending one and waiting for their report. While the Jerusalem District has received some new equipment and firefighting trucks in the past half year, it is still significantly missing equipment to satisfy the standard set by the State Comptroller’s Report.

Mevaseret Zion residents seized on Tuesday’s fire as proof that the Transportation Ministry plan to upgrade Highway 1 – which would leave just one entrance and exit for Mevaseret Zion and the Mateh Yehuda towns – could be dangerous in these types of emergencies.

Mevaseret Zion mayor Arie Shamam warned that a fire or terrorist attack on Highway 1 at the single entrance would completely paralyze the 80,000 residents and make it impossible for rescue services to get to the area.

Overnight, inspectors with the Jewish National Fund canvassed the area to ensure that the fire was completely extinguished in the national park. Firefighters are continuing their investigation. If they determine the cause of the fire was arson, the investigation will be handed over to police.

In the past two weeks, seven people have been arrested for involvement in the wave of arsons.

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