Firefighters have succeeded in gaining control over a blaze that broke out in Jerusalem Forest and spread rapidly towards Yad Vashem, endangering the Holocaust museum's visitors and staff and leading to their evacuation. Authorities suspect the fire was a result of arson.
More than 50 firemen from 33 firefighting units battled the flames, together with six firefighting planes. The forces will continue their work overnight, to make sure the fire does not rekindle.
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Police say residents of the nearby neighborhoods of Har Nof and Mitzpe Nof, who were ordered to remain in their homes, can now go about their business. Roads will remain closed, however, due to the effects of extinguishing materials. The fire caused no major injuries, but four people were treated for smoke inhalation.
Authorities suspect arson because the flames broke out in a number of different areas at once, sources from Jerusalem's firefighters and police said, adding that an investigation would be launched as soon as the fire had been extinguished.
The director-general of Yad Vashem inveighed against forces for their slow response. "The firefighters took an hour from the moment we notified them. They arrived very tardily. Our maintenance teams stopped the fire at the last minute," he said.
"The fire reached a distance of just 40 meters from the Yad Vashem archives. We stopped it just before it could destroy our most precious treasures. I don't know and don't want to think what would have happened if we hadn't stopped it."
More than 50 firefighters, six planes alerted (Photo: Yossi Zamir)
"The difficulties in extinguishing the fire mainly derive from the topographical conditions. The fire is raging in a valley," Rakia said earlier. "We are making an effort to prevent the thick smoke from reaching the homes above."
Authorities had also been concerned that the blaze would spread to the Pi Glilot fuel depot.
Fire Chief Shahar Ayalon had said earlier he believed control over the flames would be obtained within hours. "The area is problematic," he said. "It contains a fuel depot, an important museum, and nearby neighborhoods. Smoke is filling the area, and it is not just some distant forest patch… But we're using planes and firefighting teams. We've got a full arsenal here."
'Flames very difficult to control' (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Knesset speaker evacuated from home
In addition, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and his wife were evacuated from their home in Yaffe Nof neighborhood, near Pi Glilot, and ordered to remain in the Knesset building.
Meanwhile IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz ordered the various military units under his supervision to assist with the extinguishing of the flames. He placed planes, logistical equipment, and tankers at the firefighters' disposal.
Aharon, a resident of Har Nof, described the fire from his point of view. "There is a horse farm underneath Yad Vashem, which I believe has already been destroyed. The fire is very close to Yad Vashem," he said, adding that firefighters were dousing the area around Pi Glilot in order to keep the blaze at bay.
"There is a huge amount of smoke and fire, and the planes are arriving, as well as a lot of police forces," he said.
'Fire caused many explosions' (Photo: Daniel Ma'or)
Another Har Nof resident, Hillel Meir, who visited the area to take pictures but was forced to return due to the growing flames, told Ynet that the blaze broke out in the valley between Har Nof and the neighborhood Beit Zayit. It then burnt down the Forest Farm, a petting zoo with activities for kids, he said.
"There were explosions, they said that cars that were parked there burnt down and made the exploding sounds," he said. "The entire area was evacuated, including homes on the outskirts of Har Nof. The fire is very close to Yad Vashem."
Yaron, who observed the fire from a nearby office building, said that firefighters were making visible efforts to subdue the raging flames.
"There's a chance that they will evacuate buildings, it's difficult to say what exactly is burning there, but I don’t think that the white smoke is coming from burning trees," he said. "It looks really serious, as far as I know there are a lot of flammable materials there."
Yair Altman, Yoav Zitun, Omri Efraim, Aviel Magnezi, and Hanan Greenberg contributed to this report
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