PM declares national day of mourning following fire

Netanyahu warns public to keep clear of Carmel fire; 40 prison guards are killed after being trapped in bus; Haifa police chief critically injured; fire-fighting crews, planes attempt to control fire in North.

Carmel fire 311 (photo credit: Israel Police)
Carmel fire 311
(photo credit: Israel Police)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Thursday "I will declare this a day of mourning," in response to the fire that was spreading in the Carmel forest area, that left 40 prison wardens dead and dozens injured.
Netanyahu pleaded with the public to stay away from the area of the fire, whichwas spreading in the Carmel area and to listen for emergency instructions.
Northern Israel was in a state of emergency on Thursday night 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, and destroyed thousands upon thousands of dunams of forests on the Carmel Mountain ridge.
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.
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“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 Hakarmel was also evacuated.
Emergency officials were evaluating the situation on Thursday night to see if areas of Haifa would also require evacuation.
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.
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.
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.
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
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