Thousands of fire-fighters battle blazes across Israel

Police questioning numerous suspects for arson, 75,000 evacuate Haifa as fires rage across Israel.

Fire-fighters work to extinguish a fire in Haifa. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Fire-fighters work to extinguish a fire in Haifa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Some 200 raging fires burned throughout Israel for a third straight day on Thursday, with upward of 75,000 residents being evacuated from their homes in Haifa and thousands more across the country, until Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan declared the general situation “under control” late at night.
Erdan said earlier in the day that “half of the fires are being deliberately set.”
Magen David Adom said it treated more than 90 people for light smoke inhalation, and transferred them to hospitals, which remained on high alert throughout the day. At least one person was treated for moderate injuries.
There were no deaths or critical injuries, police said.
An estimated 750 hectares (1,850 acres) of forests and rural areas have been destroyed in Zichron Ya’acov, Neveh Shalom, Modi’in, Neveh Ilan and Nataf, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s fire-fighting services said.
“KKL-JNF declared a general mobilization of over 200 fire-fighting crews that have been working nonstop for the last 72 hours, alongside the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, to extinguish fires and to separate between organic flammablematerial and ongoing fires, thus creating buffer zones to contain the expansion of fires to forests and open areas,” KKLJNF World Chairman DannyAtar said.
“KKL-JNF foresters and fire-fighters are working day and night to assist the rescue services to stop the fires and to save forest areas. At the same time, we are putting our efforts into helping victims of the fires, and opening a field and forest center in Ness Harim [near Beit Shemesh], to welcome families evacuated from their homes,” Atar said.
Haim Messing, director of KKL-JNF’s central region, said that “in all areas which KKLJNF manages, buffer lines have proven themselves and helped in preventing loss of life, property or grounds.”
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) confirmed that it is investigating the fires to determine whether they are the result of arson.
“The Shin Bet along with the police have detained several suspects who were taken in for questioning in connection with possible arson fires that affected multiple places areas across the country,” read a statement released by authorities.
According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, “We’re looking into the background of the fires today to see if they were deliberate or not, and searching for and questioning suspects about whom we received reports of suspicious activity, who fled the areas after the fires began.”
No arrests had been made as of 9 p.m., he said, noting that Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich called for a special investigative team and unit to determine how each of the fires started, and whether they were connected.
While Rosenfeld acknowledged that the timing and number of fires may indicate arson, he said high winds and dry conditions may also have played a role.
“It’s not clear if the fires were deliberate, or unconnected and spread by the severe wind and weather conditions,” he said.
Likud and Bayit Yehudi MKs said that the fires raging across the country are terrorist attacks.
“Only someone to whom the land doesn’t belong could be able to burn it,” Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett tweeted.
“Anyone who has eyes and a brain can see that the fires in many places in Israel are not natural,” said Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud).
“We must find the terrorists who are burning our forests and endangering human lives.”
Regev thanked the fire-fighters for working to put out the blazes.
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz (Likud) said he plans to propose legislation that would allow the government to foreclose on the home and possessions of anyone who is convicted of arson, so that victims can be repaid and people are deterred from setting fires.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) tweeted that the punishment for arson is 15 years, and if it is of state property or a nature site, the punishment is 20 years.
MK Nava Boker (Likud), who police officer husband died in the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire, wrote on Facebook: “200 fires in one day – the time has come to say it openly. This is ecological terrorism.”
Likud MK Amir Ohana said that the fires show that “they want to destroy the one Jewish state more than they want to establish the 22nd Arab state.
This shows who really loves the land, its views and its environment, and who is taking part in a sick lifelong project of murdering, burning and destroying Israel’s neighborhoods, residents and trees.”
In the opposition, Joint list chairman Ayman Odeh, a resident of Haifa, expressed hope that the fires will be put out soon, and said “it is hard to see Mount Carmel go up in flames and serious fires all over the country.”
MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) called “to lower the flames – in all meanings of the word,” saying the security forces will catch arsonists and the inciters.
Odeh lamented those who “chose to take advantage of the terrible situation to incite against an entire population group. Whoever loves our homeland must focus now on putting out fires, and helping those who are hurt, not fueling hatred.”
The Palestinian Authority’s Civil Defense service said that the Israeli government had asked for assistance in fighting the fires, and that it had agreed to help for humanitarian reasons.
It had done so as well during the massive fire in the Carmel Forest in 2011.
A number of blazes also broke out in the Palestinian territories near Ramallah and Nablus.
According to police spokesman Rosenfeld, six separate fires started at approximately 10 a.m., and rapidly spread throughout Haifa, destroying dozens of homes.
“The fires spread to eight neighborhoods, and tens of thousands of residents were evacuated to safe areas inside three large public buildings and a football stadium,” said Rosenfeld.
“At least two planes from Greece were used in coordination with six Israeli planes to fight the fires from above, with the planes from Greece repeatedly loading tons of water from the sea and dropping it over the areas that were hit.
“Security units were coordinating on the ground with the airplanes up above, which ceased operations by nightfall because they cannot operate in the dark,” Rosenfeld said.
As hundreds of fire-fighters fought the blaze from the ground, Rosenfeld said police set up a command center and conducted house-to-house searches to ensure no one was in danger.
“We were looking for people who could have been trapped in houses, and at the same time police stayed inside the neighborhoods after they were evacuated to keep them safe and safeguard their homes,” he said. “We don’t have an exact count of the number of homes that were affected, but it is in the thousands.”
At approximately 9 a.m., Rosenfeld said, police responded to a large brush fire in Moshav Neveh Ilan, located west of Jerusalem.
“The fire was contained and put out by fire-fighters and at least three airplanes, and no one was injured,” Rosenfeld said.
At approximately 4 p.m., another blaze broke out in Modi’in, causing extensive damage to several hectares of land, forcing the temporary suspension of rail service.
“Our fire fighters responded immediately, and it was put out relatively quickly,” Rosenfeld said, adding that there were no injuries. “After we took control of the situation, the train resumed normal service,” he added.
The Environmental Protection Ministry said the fires around the country have caused dangerous air pollution, and it recommends that those living in affected areas, especially children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those suffering from respiratory illnesses, stay at home as much as possible – if they are not asked by the fire authorities to evacuate – and close all ventilation points.
The Health Ministry said it is following the developments and the implications for the health system, to protect hospital patients and staff and prepare logistically if necessary.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who is abroad, asked ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov to take all necessary measures, and prepare for the evacuation of geriatric patients in Haifa’s Fleiman Hospital.
Only those connected to respirators have so far been moved to other facilities.
The Immigration and Absorption Ministry opened a situation room on Thursday to help immigrants who need help because of the fire, and an emergency hotline, which can be reached at *2994 or (03) 973-3333.
Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver made her way to the Haifa International Conference Center to meet with immigrants.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a Haifa resident, ordered his ministry to immediately hold an evaluation of the situation on Thursday evening, so that aid can be given to those who need it.
Senior officials in the Finance Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office and Interior Ministry held a joint meeting where they received updates on the action being taken to help evacuees get immediate help, and the needs of local authorities and law enforcement. They plan to hold another meeting on Sunday.
Currently, there are no budgetary obstacles to what is needed to respond to the situation.
Meanwhile, soldiers in training and combat units have had their leaves canceled, in case they are needed to help battle the flames. According to the IDF, the situation will continue “until new orders are given.”
In addition, two IDF Home Front Command battalions and reservists are working alongside civilian fire-fighter and police in order to douse the flames. According to an IDF spokesman, the Home Front Command’s Kedem Battalion has been called in to help with the evacuations in the Mount Carmel area.