First of 23 int'l fire aircraft lands at northern IAF base

As uncontrolled Carmel forest fire continues to spread, first of 4 Greek planes carrying firefighters, fire retardant supplies arrives in Israel; over 20,000 dunams consumed; over 13,000 residents evacuated.

Carmel fire 311 (photo credit: Israel Police)
Carmel fire 311
(photo credit: Israel Police)
The first of 23 international aircraft carrying firefighters, supplies and fire retardant chemicals landed at the Ramat David Israel Air Force base in the North early Friday morning.
The Greek plane, the first of five which are expected from the country, brought much needed fire retardant supplies and additional firefighting forces who will join Israeli fire crews battling the uncontrolled Carmel forest fire. According to Army Radio, in addition to the four Greek aircraft, four aircraft are expected to arrive from France, three from Britain, two from Spain, two from Russia, two from Turkey, two from Cypress, two from Bulgaria, one from Croatia and one from Azerbaijan.
According to Jewish National Fund officials, over 20,000 dunams have been consumed and around 13,000 residents have been evacuated from their homes as a result of the blaze which has been spreading due to strong eastern winds.
Overnight Friday, the fire spread to the residential area of Tirat Hacarmel and the Denya neighborhood of Haifa causing the evacuation of over 2,000 residents. In addition, two additional fires broke out overnight near the entrance to the village of Ussafiya and the Atlit prison. A number of fire crews were diverted from the larger fire in an attempt to gain control of the new blazes.
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US President Barack Obama on Thursday offered his condolences to the victims and families affected by the uncontrolled fire.
"As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster," Obama said at a reception celebrating the second night of Hanukka.
"A short while ago, our ambassador in Tel Aviv, Jim Cunningham, issued a disaster declaration, which has launched an effort across the US government to identify the firefighting assistance we have available and provide it to Israel as quickly as possible. Of course, that's what friends do for each other."
Obama continued, "Our thoughts and prayers are with everybody in Israel who is affected by this tragedy and the family and loved ones of those in harm’s way."
'Forty people die Thursday as a result of fire'
Thirty-six Israel Prison Service members, two police officers, one volunteer firefighter and one civilian lost their lives as a result of the blaze. Three people remained in critical condition at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
Northern Israel was in a state of emergency as the worst ever fire in the country's history incinerated a bus carrying forty members of the Israel Prisons Service, killing everyone on board, destroying thousands upon thousands of dunams of forests on the Carmel Mountain ridge and injuring dozens. Twelve thousand residents from Tirat Hacarmel and other surrounding communities in the area were evacuated from their homes as a result of the fire.
Emergency officials began evacuating areas in the Denya neighborhood of Haifa as a result of the uncontrolled fire.
Israel Air Force bases in Ramat David in the North were preparing to host European fire suppression aircraft from Greece, Spain and Cyprus which were scheduled to arrive Friday morning to help battle the fire. Additional aid was coming from Britain, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Romania, Jordan and Bulgaria. The IAF is readying for the possibility of sending its own aircraft to neighboring countries to gather fire retardant chemicals to assist in extinguishing the fire. The IDF decided not to renew fire suppression efforts by helicopter due to damage caused to the aircraft.
In addition, a Boeing 747 loaded with a fire retardant chemical is scheduled to leave the United States for Israel Thursday night, thanks to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Israeli Acting Consul General Ido Aharoni, members of the FDNY and Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the US Forestry Service.
Egypt has also offered to assist in firefighting efforts by supplying fire extinguishing chemicals, according to the IDF Spokesperson.
Furthermore, in an attempt to locate additional victims affected by the fire, the IDF overnight Friday called upon reservists from a number of battalions to help search the affected region. The military has prepared to assist evacuated citizens with sleeping mattresses and food and has been coordinating efforts with local authorities.
Residents of Haifa were urged to remain indoors due to heavy air pollution. Authorities advised residents to remain inside their homes, seal windows and doors and avoid any physical activity while outside.
Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen was overseeing rescue operations in the Carmel region overnight Friday. Cohen completed an evaluation meeting and issued instructions to emergency officials for the remainder of the Thursday night and into Friday. The instructions included filming the area from above with IDF assistance throughout the night, and launching an information center for members of the public together with the Haifa municipality.
The IDF Home Front Command called upon 200 firefighters from around the country to report to the north to help battle the fire beginning Friday morning.
'I will declare a day of mourning'
Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared, "I will declare this a day of mourning." Netanyahu pleaded with the public to stay away from the area of the fire and to listen for emergency instructions.
As the flames spread at astonishing speeds, fed by parched forest lands that had not seen rain for eight months, fire crews battling the blazes were completely overwhelmed by the disaster, and several towns and villages, including Ussafiya, were evacuated for fear that the fire would engulf them too. An urgent order was put out by Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach calling on all fire crews in the country to mobilize to the North and assist in the efforts to control the flames.
“If we don't get foreign assistance tonight, I doubt we will be able to control fire, and it will stop only at shores of the Mediterranean,” warned Haifa firefighter spokesman Hezi Levi.
Kibbutz Bet Oren has reportedly been largely destroyed by the flames after it was evacuated. Police closed off Route 4 near Atlit, sealing off a central artery connecting the North to the South for fear that motorists would be injured by spreading flames, and evacuated the villages of Ein Hod, Ein Hud and Nir Etzion.
The Kele 6 Prisons facility in Tirat Hacarmel was also evacuated.
Netanyahu made an urgent plea to the governments of Cyprus, Greece, Russia and Italy for assistance, and Cypriot and Greek fire planes and crews have been dispatched to Israel to try and contain the fires.
Two hundred rescue officials from the Police's Community Guard branch were mobilized to the North together with jeeps and equipment to search for additional casualties.
'40 prison service members killed'
Earlier on Thursday, some 40 members of the Prison Service – the majority of whom were new recruits to the Prisons Service – had been dispatched to the Damon Prison near Kibbutz Bet Oren to assist in the evacuation of some 500 prisoners from the facility. The bus however never made it to its destination. It traveled from Atlit to the prison via the winding, mountainous single lane Route 721, before suddenly becoming engulfed in flames, leaving no survivors on board. The victims' families were notified of their loses Thursday night.
A tearful firefighter spokesman said the blaze had traveled 1500 meters in less than three minutes, adding, "the bus had no chance. The passengers tried to escape but were all burned alive. It was a horrific scene." The spokesman added that the fire was very far from the road on which the bus was traveling when it first set off towards the prison, but had spread far faster than expected.
The head of the Haifa Police, Dep.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer, was critically injured in the same area by the fire. She was evacuated to the Rambam Medical Center suffering from severe burns, and doctors were fighting for her life on Thursday night.
A Prisons Service spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post that staff were devastated by the deaths, which form the largest peacetime mass casualty event involving security forces. “We are still identifying the bodies,” she said. “We're doing all that we can to help the families and offer support to members of staff. This is a disaster for us.”
The IPS dispatched teams of psychologists to hospitals and to the L.Greenberg Institute for Forensic Medicine, where many of the badly burned bodies were being identified, to offer support. By Thursday evening, not one family had been officially notified that their loved one had been killed due to the slow process of identification.
Police began distributing water and food to displaced residents at Tirat Hacarmel on Thursday night. Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen arrived on the scene, and ordered police officers to assist in life-saving rescue operations, identify victims, and oversee evacuation efforts.
'We will not gain control tonight'
Fire chief Shimon Romach added that the firefighting operation would be limited to ground forces after sunset, since fire planes cannot be used at night. "We will not get control of this tonight," he added.
"At this hour a terrible fire is ravaging Mt. Carmel; there are many casualties. We are mobilizing all of our forces to deal with this disaster, to rescue the injured and to stop the fire. This is an unprecedented disaster,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in Jerusalem, before setting out to the fire scene.
The IDF allocated all of its resources on Thursday to assist the Fire and Rescue Service in battling the blaze that had engulfed the Carmel Mountain region and claimed the lives of at least 40 people.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi visited the Fire and rescue Service’s command post in the North and said that the military will do all it could to help extinguish the fire.
The IDF Home Front Command had established a command post near the scene of the blaze and was coordinating relief efforts together with the Northern Police District. Forces were assisting in evacuating neighborhoods in Tirat Carmel after the fire began to surround the eastern part of the city. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were also diverted to the scene of the fire to assist fire fighters in tracking its direction.
“This is a major tragedy and our hearts are with the families of the dead,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. “The IDF is working to assist rescue service as much as possible to extinguish the fire and has offered all of its available resources.”
Three people, including Ahuva Tomer, were in critical condition at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center after suffering severe burns covering more than half their bodies that resulted from the conflagration.
Four other people were lightly injured and treated at Carmel Medical Center and Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa. They included fire fighters who inhaled smoke and carbon monoxide from the fire. One of them was discharged in the evening.
Israel Prisons Service Head Lt.-Gen. Benny Kaniak said in a statement, "We bow our heads in sorrow over the loss of life and injury of the best of its sons and daughters, who were sent on an operational mission to save lives, and found themselves in a disaster the likes of which we in the Prisons Service and the State of Israel have not known. Our hearts are with the families of those killed and injured. We will do everything to support and assist during these difficult moments."
Deputy Health Minister MK Ya’acov Litzman drove to Rambam and other hospitals to ensure that they were able to handle the injured but was told that while they waited to receive injured in the emergency room, "all that arrived were bodies." Patients and staff of the Tirat Hacarmel Mental Health Center, located close to the quickly moving flames, were evacuated to ensure their safety.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman asked ambassadors in the United States, Europe and Jordan to seek assistance in overcoming the blaze.
The ministry also opened a situation room.

Yaakov Katz and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
Additional number for information for affected families: 08 977-5717
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