Wildfires burn fast and hot in the Jerusalem hills

Arson suspected as cause; school moderately damaged.

Arson is the suspected cause of a wildfire that ravaged the Jerusalem hills on Saturday, moderately damaging an elementary school and barely missing Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha and its hilltop guesthouse. Battling heat and high winds, firefighters fought the blaze for hours before calling in the assistance of helicopters and an airplane to spray the area from above. Beit Shemesh fire department spokesman Shmulik Amlam told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that firefighters had subdued the flames after about five hours. Of the 500 dunams that were burned on Saturday, 180 were part of the Jewish National Fund's Hahamisha Forest, according to Chanoch Zoref, a JNF spokesman. "There are no naturally caused fires in Israel," Zoref said on Sunday. "The question is only if whoever started the fire did so on accident or on purpose." He said JNF workers and fire trucks were the first to arrive on the scene, and were able to see that the fire had started in three different spots, an indication that foul play may have been involved. A Ma'aleh Hahamisha guesthouse employee, Itzhak Moshe, confirmed that all three fires started at about the same time. While the guesthouse narrowly escaped damage, the schoolyard and structures of the Alon School were blackened and burned out. The only thing that prevented the entire school compound - a series of buildings and a basketball court - from completely burning down was the hard work of firefighters, Amlam said. "Only their bodies separated the fire from the school," he told the Post. The school, which is under the jurisdiction of the Matei Yehuda Regional Council, was closed down yesterday and will remain closed until inspections and repairs are completed. Moshe Dadon, a spokesperson for the council, said students would continue their studies today at one of the local high schools, which has already been vacated for summer break. The forest's recovery, however, is expected to take 30 years, according to Zoref. The fire department is currently conducting an investigation into the cause of Saturday's fire before releasing an official statement. Meanwhile, firefighters tackled another blaze on Sunday, in the hills outside of Mevaseret Zion. While the cause of that blaze remains unknown, Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Yoram Levy said it was harder to subdue than Saturday's wildfire. "[Sunday's fire] was difficult because the fire moved extremely quickly, and got close to homes," he said. "It was almost a disaster."