Greece, Croatia and Russia are sending fire-fighting aircraft to help Israel fight large brush fires in the central and northern regions, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Wednesday evening.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the leaders of Greece and Croatia Wednesday after the flames continued for a second day, and hundreds of residents from Nataf, 19 km. west of Jerusalem, were evacuated from their homes. Fires broke out on Tuesday in Zichron Ya’acov overlooking the Mediterranean coast and in Neveh Shalom – west of Nataf and just south of the Latrun Monastery – which abetted by strong winds and arid conditions spread perilously close to homes and schools, also forcing evacuations.
“I asked for an immediate increase in the request for the planes,” Netanyahu said while visiting Zichron Ya’acov, noting that during the Mount Carmel forest fire six years ago (when 44 people died), dozens of aircraft were brought to Israel from the US and various countries in Europe – including Greece,Russia and Croatia – to help douse the blaze.
Since that time, Israel has built its own squadron of fire-fighting aircraft.
“Today, because we have our own squadron, our needs are not as great, but there are certain needs for perhaps a number of aircraft that we would request from our neighbors,” the prime minister said. Israel sent three fire-fighting planes to Cyprus over the summer to help fight a massive fire there.
Netanyahu said he instructed the National Security Council to deal with requests coming in from the various bodies dealing with the fires, so the requests to other countries can be made in a speedy and organized fashion.
During the prime minister’s visit to the North, where he received a briefing on the fires, he said there are signs of both being started by natural causes, as well as by arson. Regardless, he said, the dry and windy conditions means that a small fire immediately turns into a much larger one.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Wednesday’s fire in Nataf started shortly after 9 a.m., adding that four suspects who may have started the conflagration are being questioned, but have not been charged.
“The fire quickly spread from a road where construction was being done, and police and fire crews immediately responded,” said Rosenfeld. “Over 200 people were evacuated from the area, where approximately six houses went up in flames. Thankfully, there were no injuries.”
Rosenfeld said 30 fire crews, aided by at least six planes and a police helicopter, battled the blaze for nearly six hours, finally containing it on Wednesday evening.
The suspects, he said, were repairing a roadway on the outskirts of Nataf, near where the flames started.
“They were the only people in the area at the time the blaze broke out, and we’re looking to see if their activities were connected to the fire in any way whatsoever,” said Rosenfeld. He added that a command and information center was set up at the entrance to the community to help care for, and inform, fleeing residents.
“All the roads in the area were closed off, and police units were stationed at the area to make sure no one went inside,” Rosenfeld said.
Asked if there appeared to be a connection between the three blazes, Rosenfeld said multiple investigations have been opened to determine if they were triggered by weather conditions or foul play.
Due to the continued air pollution from the Zichron Ya’acov fire, the Environmental Protection Ministry warned residents who were not asked to evacuate to stay inside their homes.
The high concentration of respirable particles was the result not only of the dust from the fire, but also severe meteorological conditions, the ministry said Wednesday.
Hourly levels of PM10 – particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less – reached up to 1,100 micrograms per cubic meter in certain areas of Zichron on Wednesday morning, or 18 times normal values.
A fire that broke out late on Tuesday night in Kibbutz Revadim caused the ministry to recommend that 40 families evacuate that area as well. Revadim is located in the Yoav region of the southern Coastal Plain, halfway between Beit Shemesh and Ashdod.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said that its inspectors were working with the forces fighting the fire in both the Zichron Ya’acov and Nataf areas, in order to limit the damage to flora and fauna as much as possible.
“These are difficult scenes,” said INPA executive director Shaul Goldstein.
“A whole world is burning – animals and a rich plant world that we weren’t able to protect and preserve.
Beyond the heavy punishments that we must impose on those responsible, it is our obligation to provide a thorough explanation to the public. These fires are not an act of fate.”