Blazes beaten back by day, but rage on at night

Fires still active around Beit Oren, wildlife reserve, Usfiya, eastern Carmel Mt. ridge; firefighters say they could gain control in 2 days.

December 4, 2010 21:02
Trees on fire near Usfiya

Trees fire Usfiya 311. (photo credit: Channel 10 News)

As the sun set on Saturday evening over the scarred and still burning Carmel Mountains, police and firefighters took cautious satisfaction in progress that had been made after more than 36 hours of relentless battle against the monstrous inferno, and took up defensive positions around Haifa, Usfiya and other communities, while hoping that nocturnal winds would not undo all of their hard work.

A fleet of international assistance aircraft from Russia, Greece, France, Bulgaria, Britain, Turkey and Italy flew sortie after sortie over the flames, dropping large quantities of water and fire retardants, before returning for more runs. On the ground, besieged firefighters managed to beat the fires back from Nir Etzion, Ein Hod, Haifa's Denya neighborhood, and the Tirat Hacarmel - Atlit area.

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The progress soon found expression in a police directive allowing residents of Kfar Galim, Kibbutz Hahotrim, Moshav Magdim, Denya and Tirat Hacarmel to return to their homes. Ein Hod, Nir Etzion, Ein Chud, and Yemin Orde remained off limits though. Police also reopened Route 4 to traffic in both directions.

Some homes in Ein Hod and Nir Ezion were savaged by the fires, while others returned to homes that were left unscathed.

Soon after nightfall, Firefighters spokesman Boaz Arkia told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday that the fire remained active in the eastern section of the mountain ridge, around Ussafiya, Daliat al-Karmel, Beit Oren, and wildlife reserve (Hai Bar).

"We are now focused on defending the communities here. Tonight is very problematic for us because the winds are changing direction and will become stronger. We must wait until morning to reassess the situation," Arkia said. "We hope to get real control in the next 48 hours [by Monday]," he added.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's lease of the Evergreen supertanker - the only firefighting plane capable of operating during nighttime - could just break the balance in favor of the firefighters when it arrives, Arkia said.

"We can see the fires rage at nights in real time, but now we can't do anything about it. When this plane comes into service, things will change."

Arkia said fire crews remained dedicated and enjoyed high morale despite severe exhaustion. "We're working in shifts to allow them some respite - they are, afterall human beings. But we are fully committed. We don't break so easily," he said.

The IDF increased its involvement, coordinating over the weekend the arrival of dozens of foreign airplane and helicopters.

Starting Friday morning, The Air Force began receiving the foreign aerial support that was sent to Israel and dispatched air traffic control officers to the command center set up at Haifa University to coordinate relief efforts.

The IAF is expecting additional aircrafts from Switzerland, Russia, Netherlands, France, Azerbaijan and Romania.

“The IDF is concentrating its efforts with the other firefighting forces,” Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said on Saturday. “Today, we are all firefighters,” he added.

Firefighters from Bulgaria were sent to the Home Front Command’s training base from which they will depart for specific firefighting missions. The Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers opened its vacation village in Givat Olga to other volunteers who came from overseas to assist in efforts to put out the Carmel fire.

Meanwhile, several additional key developments took place over the weekend. All 41 casualties of the fire were identified by forensic officers at the L. Greenberg Institute for Forensic Medicince at Abu Kabir. The majority of the dead were Israel Prisons Service staff who had been burned alive in their bus near Bet Oren on Thursday. The dead also included two policemen who had tried to assist the bus passengers, named as Ch.-Supt. Itzik Melina, and the northern district's operations branch manager Dep.-Cmdr. Lior Boker, who was posthumously promoted to Asst.-Cmdr by Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen.

The body of Elad Riban, 16, of Haifa, who was a volunteer in the Fire Service, and who had rushed to assist other firemen on Thursday was also identified.

Haifa police chief Dep.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer remained in critical condition at the Rambam Medical Center.

On Friday night, shortly after midnight four Border Policemen were hospitalized for smoke inhalation but were said to be in good condition. The officers were encircled by flames as they accompanied three firetrucks near Ein Hod. The beleaguered forces were led to safety by a police helicopter that flew overhead.

Throughout the day on Friday, the fires threatened Ussafiya, Beit Oren, and Nir Etzion, before being beaten back. Police expressed exasperation after members of the public ignored directives and returned to their homes after being evacuated, forcing officers to return and evacuate them once more, using force, and sometimes handcuffing the residents to lead them away in Beit Oren and Denya.

A stream of onlookers also created a dangerous nuisance for police, interfering with the work of emergency services, and endangering traffic on Route 4 where several drivers pulled over to watch and photograph the flames above.

In Atlit, residents were told on Friday to close their windoes and turn on their air conditioners to avoid smoke inhalation.

The fires threatened to engulf the Ya'arot Hacarmel hotel in the mountain ridge, though the structure emerged largely unharmed.

Meanwhile, as criticism mounted at the poor state of the Fire Service following years of neglect, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharnovitch hinted that the service would soon come under the auspices of his ministry in a centralized manner.

"The fire Service will not continue in its present form, and will be revised," a ministry statement said. "In recent weeks... the minister examined plans to bring the Service under his authority, though it is too soon to discuss this now. The issue will be examined when the fires are out."

Up-to-date map of fires raging in Carmel

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