Firefighters on Saturday night continued their efforts to contain a wildfire on Israel's
Mount Carmel, which has claimed the lives
of 41 people since it broke out on Thursday morning. The forces were aided throughout the day by firefighting aircraft
sent from many countries across the world.
"At this point we have reached the best situation since the fire began," said Israel Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach. "We are still not talking about controlling the fire. It will take us a day or two and then we'll still have the final extinguishing work, so there is a lot of work ahead."
A senior Israel Air Force officer said Saturday night that the fire had reached its lowest level since breaking out on Thursday. "A new challenge is expected in the morning, with southeastern winds which may lead the blaze to new directions," he said. "The fire may be in control by the end of the day."
The Evergreen Supertanker,
the world's largest aerial firefighting plane, was expected to land in Israel on Saturday night and join the fire extinguishing efforts. The American plane, which has a capacity of 80,000 liters of water, is capable of operating in the night as well – as opposed to other firefighting aircraft.
Israel will pay a heavy price - some $200,000 an hour – for failing to purchase firefighting planes throughout the years.
In total, some 30 firefighting aircraft and three helicopters – which arrived from the United States, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Azerbaijan, Spain, Romania, Holland and Canada – are expected to operate on Mount Carmel from Sunday morning.
A senior IAF officer noted that all planes would operate in relatively small areas, where the fire was still raging.
Two Hercules planes carrying 18 tons of firefighting material landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Saturday evening. US ambassador to Israel James Cunningham, who was present when they arrived, promised this assistance was just the beginning, saying further aid would arrive Sunday, including a tactical team.
He added that the Americans were praying for the recovery of the Israelis injured in the fire, including Haifa Police Commander Ahuva Tomer,
who is still for her life. "She is a close friend of the American embassy," Cunningham said.
A senior IDF officer said that the defense establishment had warned of the failures in the firefighting lineup on numerous occasions.
"This difficult incident has revealed a weak point, which requires treatment. The State of Israel needs an appropriate firefighting system," he said. The officer admitted that the incident served as "a warning sign" for Israel, in the security aspect as well.
Burnt car in Kibbutz Beit Oren (Photo: Yoav Zitun)
The wildfire has so far burnt some 50,000 dunam (12,300 acres) of land. The firefighting operations continued Saturday night in the Hai-Bar animal and nature reserve near Haifa and west of Haifa University. Fire was also raging near a garbage site in the village of Usfiya and in the western part of Dalyat al-Carmel.
Four firefighting teams operating in the Hai-Bar area ran out of water on Saturday evening and were forced to pull back before getting reinforcement. "The fire is 15-20 meters (50-65 feet) high – a wall of flames," their commander reported.
"We are fighting fire from three directions," he said. An Israel Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle was reporting of the flame's progress to an Israel Defense Forces officer stationed in the area with the firefighters, who continued to request more and more water.
Israel on fire - NASA satellite image (Photo: AP)
Boaz Rakia of the firefighting services reported earlier of "several areas where the fire is raging". He said that "fires are still erupting from time to time, for example in the Ein Hod and Nir Etzion areas. The fire died down there during the day, but there are still places where it hasn't been completely extinguished. A sudden gust of wind could ignite the fire again. Our people are in those places to provide a response."
Some of the residents of Ein Hod and Nir Etzion chose to remain in their communities despite a police evacuation order, and are patrolling the houses in a bid to prevent plunder.
Hezy Levy, a spokesman for Haifa's firefighting services, expressed cautious optimism on Saturday evening, saying that "the battle will be relaunched tomorrow with renewed forces. Some 400 firefighters are expected to arrive from their homes all freshened up, and the aerial activity will resume as well."
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, on the other hand, said during a press briefing at the command post at Haifa University that he remains "not optimistic".
"My working assumption is that it will take a few more days. The fleet of planes which will join us tomorrow will provide real aid. You must remember that we hardly engage in fire extinguishing at night."
Carmel forest before fire (Photo: Dafna Meroz)
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi
spoke of more than 25 different aircraft which had arrived from various countries. "The weather forecast for tonight is slightly better," he said. "The massive operation of hundreds of tons of water being thrown every hour and dozens of tons of material are eventually leading to the desired income. We'll defeat this fire. It will take a day or two more, and we will then draw the conclusions."
Meanwhile, the police have arrested
a 16-year-old boy and his 14-year-old brother from the Druze village of Usfiya on suspicion of negligence which started the major fire. The two suspects' mother claimed that her sons were in school when the fire broke out and expressed her hope that they would be released from custody soon.
"At this stage we are talking about negligence and nothing more," said Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen. "There have been several cases of arson in the northern district and we have appointed a special investigation team."
Hanan Greenberg, Yair Altman, Attila sOMFALVI, Ahiya Raved, Yoav Zitun, Adi Sardas and Roni Sofer contributed to this report