Firefighters were battling blazes across Israel on Wednesday for the second day, as strong winds and dry weather made fighting the fires much harder and air pollution levels rose in affected areas.
As the dry weather and strong winds are expected to continue on Thursday as well, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have decided to ask Cyprus, Greece and Italy—and considering asking Turkey as well—for additional firefighting planes as a precaution.
A large blaze broke out near the community of Nataf in the Jerusalem Mountains on Wednesday morning. Twenty-five firefighting crews, among them 200 firefighters from the Home Front Command, were sent to the scene along with four firefighting planes as the strong winds pushed the blaze towards the community.
While firefighters were able to stop the fire from reaching the community, it continued spreading west on Wednesday afternoon before eventually being contained in the early evening.
Residents whose houses were close to the fire were evacuated from their homes and found shelter in the nearby Arab village of Abu Gosh. Two houses were burned down while several others suffered damage from the flames.
Police detained four contractor employees working on a road near Nataf on the suspicion that they lit a bonfire that got out of control and caused the large blaze that currently threatens the settlement.
With the fire spreading into Canada Park situated between the Latrun Interchange and Sha'ar HaGai, walkers were evacuated by rescue teams
It is not clear whether the original fire was an intentional act of arson or a careless mistake.
Following the fires on Tuesday and the weather conditions, acting Fire Commissioner Shimon Ben-Ner issued a fire ban covering near the entire country, which bars lighting bonfires and fires in open fields. Violation of the ban carries a six month jail sentence or an NIS 74,300 fine.
A brush fire broke out Wednesday afternoon on route 35, near a gas storage facility between Kiryat Arba and the settlement Adora in the West Bank, close to settlement of Telem. Three firefighting crews who were sent to battle the blaze were able to gain control of the fire. Police closed the road was closed to both directions.
Also on Wednesday afternoon, a large brush fire broke out near a school in Nazareth. Four firefighting crews were called to the scene after smoke got into the school. The firefighters were able to stop the process of the fire, and there is currently no danger it would continue spreading.
A fire also broke out in the Karkom area, not far from the nearby bridge that crosses the Jordan River. Five firefighting crews were on the scene.
Meanwhile, five firefighting crews were battling a blaze in Safed, trying to stop it from spreading to the nearby woods.
Another fire broke out between Gilon and Tsurit in the Lower Galilee. Eight firefighting crews and four planes were deployed to the scene, with additional aid requested from Tiberias. Police evacuated some residents from their homes in Gilon as a precaution.
The fire that raged in Zikhron Ya'akov on Tuesday reignited early Wednesday morning due to the strong winds. Some 50 firefighting teams were in the town battling the blaze with the aid of four firefighting planes, as additional teams came in from nearby districts. Some 100 firefighters from the Home Front Command joined their civilian counterparts.
"The forecast is that residents' return would not be possible in the next few days either due to the strong winds and mortal danger," authorities said following a situation assessment that included the Fire Department, the Home Front Command and the municipality.
Some residents returned to their homes on Tuesday despite not getting the all-clear and had to be evacuated once more.
Thirty houses were damaged in the fire, with 20 of them declared unfit for habitation.
The Environmental Protective Ministry noted that high levels of air pollution were registered in the city and recommended residents who have not been evacuated to remain in their homes and seal any openings.
Also on Wednesday morning, three firefighting teams were battling a brush fire on the eastern side of Nahariya. Residents were asked to remain in their homes and seal any openings due to the great amounts of smoke.
In addition, a forest fire broke out in Shefar'am on Wednesday morning, with five firefighting crews battling the flames.
Fighting the flames through the night
During the night, five firefighting teams battled a brush fire in the wadi between the villages of Yarka and Jat northeast of Acre in northern Israel. The fire burned through 150 dunam and ended just before dawn.
A brush fire that raged overnight near Kisra-Sumei in the western Galilee and was put out restarted on Wednesday morning. Four firefighting teams were on site battling it.
Earlier Tuesday night, families were evacuated from the settlement of Dolev in the Binyamin Regional Council in the West Bank due to a fire that was nearing their homes.
The fire began dying down around 10:30pm and firefighters were able to start gaining control of the blaze, but an hour and a half later the winds changed directions and picked up to 44 km/h, fanning the flames and reigniting the fire.
During the night, over 60 firefighting teams were battling flames that reached 20 meters in height in three different areas of the settlement. Gas containers caught fire and exploded.
On Wednesday morning, five firefighting teams were still at the scene battling the flames with the aid of a water-tanked and four firefighting planes, while on Wednesday afternoon the flames rose again in several areas near the settlement's houses.
Two people were taken to the hospital in light condition after suffering from smoke inhalation, while the blaze caused damage to several structures and caravans.
Later in the evening, the IDF was forced to evacuated a military outpost
Residents are still not allowed to return to their homes.
Meanwhile, firefighting teams from Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon worked to put out a big forest fire between Kiryat Gat and Lachish near route 35. They were able to gain partial control of the fire.
Authorities measured high levels of air pollution in areas affected by the fires, and recommended that those suffering from respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome, as well as the elderly, are evacuated.
Dr. Levana Kordova-Biezuner, the scientific director of the national air-monitoring system at the Environmental Protection Ministry, explained that "the haze concentrations are on the rise" because of the fires.
On Tuesday "we measured (high) concentrations inside the houses and made a decision to evacuate 40 families in Revadim, whose homes were near the fire."
In Zikhron Ya'akov, she explained "the fire particles are very dangerous because they contain all kinds of poisonous particles and could cause respiratory syndrome, burning eyes, shortness of breath, and severe asthma attacks to affected people."
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan stipulated the multiple fires could be the result of arson. "It's beginning to appear—in light of the multiple fire locations—that arson could be the cause of some of the fires. The police and the Fire Department will investigate," he wrote on Twitter. "I ask the public to remain vigilant and report any case of suspected arson and any blaze to the police and the Fire Department, mostly in the coming couple of days due to the dry weather."
On Tuesday evening, firefighters were battling a blaze in Kibbutz Revadim in southern Israel, with some 40 families evacuated from their homes after the fire increased the levels of air pollution in the area. Firefighters have since gained control of the fire and are working to completely put it out.
Throughout the day Tuesday, firefighters battled blazes in Latrun, Atlit and Nesher. Nineteen people, including a 10-day-old baby, suffered from smoke inhalation.
Ahiya Raved, Elisha Ben Kimon, Omri Efraim, Roi Yanovsky, Ilana Curiel and TPS contributed to this report.