A giant blaze that started in the Ben Shemen Forest led to the evacuation of thousands of residents from nearby towns Thursday as Israel finds itself battling a multitude of wildfires on the hottest day of the year so far.
"The damage is enormous, not just to the woodland, but also to the animals," said a JNF official (the Jewish National Fund manages many of Israel's nature areas). "Large swaths of the woodland, the green lung of the Dan region were burnt. We did not expect such a painful blow since we spent the whole night expelling people who lit bonfires."
Residents of Gimzo, Shilat, Kfar Rut, Neot Kedumim, Kfar Daniel, Mevo Modi'im and the Adam IDF base were all evacuated, and several homes were damaged in Mevo Modi'im.
Families are being sent to spend the night in the Ben Shemen Youth Village. Social workers will be on hand to assist people with the emotional trauma. Residents of surrounding towns are hosting some 3,500 evacuees.
Earlier, Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan held a briefing with the police and firefighter commissioners, along with representatives of MDA and other emergency services as the country battles multiple, large wildfires that have led to residents being evacuated from several towns.
Erdan spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who instructed that assistance be sought from neighboring countries — Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Croatia, but not Turkey — to help with the blazes. 12 planes and two helicopters are already being used to battle the flames, but apparently foreign assistance is required.
As of 8pm Thursday evening, major fires were burning at two primary locations: Mevo Modi'im and Kibbutz Harel. Some 200 firefighters are battling flames at those two locations. At least 16 homes were destroyed by the fires and police ordered both towns fully evacuated of residents.
Israelis sizzled in sweltering heat, as the weather reached scorching temperatures across the country. By the afternoon hours, Tel Aviv and the northern city of Haifa both saw some 40 degrees celsius. In the southern city of Be’er Sheva, temperatures rose to 44 degrees, while the Dead Sea region experienced 48 degrees on Thursday afternoon.
Firefighting brigades mobilized all available units and are using planes and dozens of fire trucks to try to regain control of the massive flames raging in the Jerusalem area, the Mount Hebron region and in woodlands in the center of the country. Authorities evacuated some homes in the region as the flames began spreading to residential areas.
Firefighting services said that some of the conflagrations might have started as a result of Lag B’Omer bonfires not being extinguished properly overnight.
On Wednesday, the National Fire and Rescue Authority restricted the bonfires that traditionally accompany the celebrations. The new regulations said that fires were not allowed to be lit in any forests, even in usually designated areas.
Firefighters are also battling flames in the Shfela region (south of Tel Aviv and east of the coastal plain) and near Beit Shemesh. A large fire in the Jerusalem hills led to the evacuation of Kibbutz Harel. Residents of Mavo Modi'in, Gamzu and Kfar Daniel are also being asked to evacuate their homes due to fires in the Ben Shemen woodlands.
Several homes in the Judean hills settlement of Beit Haggai were evacuated due to a fire that broke out near Highway 60 and several people were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
The Israel Railways said the extreme weather might cause delays and disruptions in train services throughout Israel since high temperatures cause the steel on the railway tracks to expand in size, slowing down the traffic.
On Friday, the heatwave is expected to reach its peak. “The weather will reach at least 40 degrees celsius in the morning hours,” said Tzahi Wachsman from the Meteo-Tech meteorological company.
Wachsman added that sandstorms might occur in southern Israel on Friday and by Saturday the heatwave will begin to ease.
The Health Ministry recommended to avoid going outside during the afternoon hours and avoid excessive exercise. It’s also recommended to close the blinds and curtains in the house in order to avoid solar radiation.