'Carmel fire in most stable state since blaze broke out'

Firefighter spokesman says fire will take days to put out; int'l aircraft resume operations to put out flames; 5 million trees destroyed.

plane carmel fire (photo credit: Associated Press)
plane carmel fire
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Carmel Mountain Range blaze was under better control on Sunday morning, Fire Chief Shimon Romah told Army Radio. While saying that this was the best state the fire-fighting teams had found themselves in since the blaze began on Thursday, he added that only cautious optimism should be exercised as fires still raged.
In a statement on Sunday morning, Boaz Rakia, spokesperson for the firefighters, said that although there was a hope that the fires would be under control by Sunday night, it would still be a number of days before all the fires were put out. The Carmel blaze has scorched over 12,000 acres (50,000 dunams), killed 41 people and injured scores.

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More than thirty fire-fighting aircraft resumed operations early on Sunday morning, and prepared to drop fire-fighting materials and water on the four remaining areas of fire in Israel's North.  Among the aircraft was the
Evergreen Supertanker aircraft that landed in Israel overnight, expected to take flight around lunchtime. The privately owned US Boeing 747, the largest fire-fighting aircraft in the world – landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport and was set to make its first flight over the fire at around 6 a.m, a senior IAF officer said. The plane can carry 80 tons of water and fire retardant.
On Saturday night, the Israel police predicted that the fire, the worst in the country’s history, would hopefully be brought under control if not completely doused by the end of Sunday.
The expectation was that the blaze, which has ravaged 50,000 dunams (12,500 acres) in and around the Carmel Mountain Range and killed 41 Israelis, would be largely defeated with the arrival of the last of 33 aircraft dispatched to the emergency effort by countries from around the world.
“Our assessment is that we will be able to put out the worst of the fire by Sunday afternoon with 33 planes that will be here from around the world,” the IAF officer said, although emergency personnel have cautioned that new fires may continue to emerge over the coming few days.
As the sun set on Saturday evening over the scarred and still burning Carmel mountains, police and firefighters took cautious satisfaction in significant progress that had been made after some 60 hours of relentless battle against the monstrous inferno.
But with fire-fighting planes unable to fly at night, new blazes continued to erupt into the night. Forces took up defensive positions around Haifa, Usfiya and other communities, while hoping that the nocturnal winds would not undo all of their hard work.
Several 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 Medicine at Abu Kabir, and a series of funerals were held. More will take place on Sunday.
The majority of the dead were Israel Prisons Service staff who were burned alive in their bus near Beit Oren on Thursday.
The dead also included two policemen who had tried to assist the bus passengers, named as Ch.-Supt. Yitzhak Melina, 46, and the Northern District’s Operations Branch manager Dep.-Cmdr. Lior Boker, 57. He was posthumously promoted to Asst.- Cmdr by Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen.
The body of Elad Riven, 16, of Haifa, who was a volunteer in the Fire Service and had rushed to assist at the scene of the tragedy, was also identified. Haifa police chief Dep.- Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer remained in critical condition at the Rambam Medical Center.
Police arrested two brothers from Usfiya, aged 14 and 16, suspected of having started the blaze by failing to douse a bonfire around which they had been playing and smoking on Thursday morning. The pair are suspected of negligence rather than deliberate arson. Arson is suspected at several other points where fires have erupted since the initial blaze took hold.
By Saturday night, more than 17,000 people had been evacuated from 15 communities, and five million trees had been destroyed, police said.
A fleet of international assistance aircraft from Russia, Greece, France, Bulgaria, Britain, Italy and Turkey 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.
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 other evacuees returned to homes that were left unscathed.
Soon after nightfall Saturday, firefighters spokesman Boaz Arkia told The Jerusalem Post that the fire remained active in the eastern section of the mountain ridge, around Usfiya, Daliat al- Carmel, Beit Oren and a wildlife reserve.
“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,” he added.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s lease of the Evergreen supertanker – the only fire-fighting 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 night 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, after all human beings. But we are fully committed. “We don’t break so easily,” he said.
The IDF increased its involvement over the weekend, coordinating the arrival of dozens of foreign airplanes and helicopters.
Starting Friday morning, the air force began receiving the foreign aerial support that had been 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 aircraft from Switzerland, Russia, the Netherlands, France, Azerbaijan and Romania.
“The IDF is concentrating its efforts with the other fire-fighting 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 missions. The Association for the Well-Being of Israel’s Soldiers opened its vacation village in Givat Olga to other volunteers who had come from overseas to assist in efforts to put out the Carmel fire.
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 fire trucks near Ein Hod. The beleaguered forces were led to safety by a police helicopter flying overhead.
Throughout the day on Friday, fires threatened Usfiya, Bet 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 windows 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 Aharonovitch 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.”
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss told State Control Committee chairman Yoel Hasson that he intends to submit to the committee a report on the condition of Israel’s fire-fighting capabilities and the performance of government ministries regarding the subject.
According to a statement issued Saturday evening by Hasson’s spokesman, the MK would then be able, based on Lindenstrauss’s report, to implement a clause in the State Comptroller Law that allows him to independently appoint a State Commission of Inquiry to examine the government’s performance regarding the Fire and Rescue Service.
A senior officer from the Home Front Command said that the IDF and Defense Ministry had been aware “for years” of the deficiencies in Israel’s Fire and Rescue Service.
According to the officer, the shortages in the fire service’s resources were apparent during the nationwide civil defense exercises – called Turning Point – that Israel has held annually since the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
“The fact that there are problems with the fire service is not new and needs to be dealt with,” the officer said.
Gil Hoffman and JPost.com staff contributed to this report.