Several wildfires scorched the hills near Jerusalem on Wednesday, with 10 firefighting aircraft, two helicopters and more than 70 firefighting teams operating at three main locations.
Firefighters reported that so far, at least 2,650 acres of forest has burned down around the Jerusalem area. Firefighters plan to work into the night to continue extinguishing the fires - the largest of which is at Har Haruach - and detecting new fires as they appear using helicopter scouts.
Wildfires rage near Jerusalem, June 9, 2021 (Police Spokesperson"s Unit)
Police ordered residents in Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha to evacuate their homes, though they were later given permission to return to their homes after that fire was reportedly contained.
Police are investigating the causes of the fires. While dry heat and strong winds have been known to cause wildfires, sources within Fire and Rescue Services have not ruled out the possibility of arson, saying that the large number of fires in the region created a suspicion that they may not have occurred naturally.
Police testimonies said that in one location, young men fled the scene, according to Channel 12. However, in most arson cases, the police find it hard to prove that it was actually arson.
Firefighters have not yet gained control of two other blazes at the Sataf National Forest and the Tur Sinai Organic Farm.
An emergency headquarters has been set up in Neve Ilan under the supervision of Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Services District Commander Nissim Twito.
Jerusalem Fire and Rescue said that all firefighters in the Jerusalem District have been called up to participate in the response.
The Environmental Protection Ministry recommended that heart patients, lung patients, the elderly, children and pregnant women in the Jerusalem area avoid unnecessary stays outside.
Residents who have not been evacuated were instructed to close their windows, turn on their air conditioners and reduce physical activity.
The exit ramps to the Hemed Interchange on Highway 1 were also closed for long periods throughout Wednesday and Israel Railways suspended service between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that ran through the affected areas as firefighters battled the blazes.
Firefighters reportedly gained control of a fire which broke out in an open area near Ariel, burning an estimated 28.3 hectares of forest.
Avishai Shaffir, deputy fire chief for the Samaria Regional Council, said in a statement that the firefighters – with the help of volunteers from local authorities, IDF reservists and a team of firefighters from the Palestinian Authority – successfully contained the fire. He added that a fire investigator was sent to the scene.
Efrat Shelef-Tobol, deputy manager of the Yad HaShmona Hotel in Neve Ilan, told KAN news that while a nearby fire started at just one location, within half an hour it spread to about 10.
Gidi Bashan, a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) forester, said in a statement that “this is a huge fire event, very unfortunate and difficult to gain control over.”
“The location – Har Haruach (Wind Mountain), is a national park and a joint KKL-JNF forest, one of the oldest forests in Israel, that was planted almost 100 years ago by the pioneers of Neve Ilan and Ma’aleh Hahamisha and most of it burned away,” he explained.
Bashan also added that “hundreds of acres of forest have been burned away, perhaps even more. The trees we’ve lost were hundred-year-old pines and lots of natural woodland that has developed throughout the years.”
The fires are the latest in a series of blazes that have been reported across the country in recent days.
On Sunday, fires were reported near the settlement of Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion, in a crop field in the South and near a hotel close to Hatzor in the North.
On Friday, a brush fire broke out in the Tzur Hadassah – adjacent to Beitar Illit – gutting about 5 hectares of land and briefly forcing the evacuation of about 100 people. The fire was brought under control after a few hours and residents were allowed to return to their homes. The same fire reignited on Saturday, though with far less ferocity.