Israel battles forest fire, international help pours; 41 dead



Israel battles forest fire, international help pours; 41 dead Tel Aviv: Israeli firefighters struggled to put out a massive blaze that has already claimed 41 lives, as international forces joined in the hapless local rescuers in controlling the worst ever forest fire in the northern part of the country.

The first of the 23 international aircraft carrying firefighters, supplies and fire retardant chemicals landed at the Ramat David Israel Air Force base after the country's fire chief admitted publicly to have lost control over the blazing inferno.

The firefighters were also battling heavy winds that are threatening to lead the fire towards the northern port city of Haifa, that is home to 250,000 people Mass evacuations continued this morning as dry easterly winds fanned the massive bushfire towards Haifa after having engulfed almost 20,000 dunams of pine forest.

Rescuers, who recovered another body today taking the toll to 41, feared that the number of dead could go up.

The Greek plane, the first of five which are expected from the country, brought much needed fire retardant supplies and additional firefighting forces who will join Israeli fire crews battling the uncontrolled fire.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also ordered to rush special aircraft to help douse the unprecedented wildfires that had engulfed the Carmel forest.

Russia has rich experience in aerial 'bombardment' to douse wildfires last summer in several regions around Moscow.

"An Ilyushin Il-76 plane, capable of dumping 42 tons of water on fire hotspots in one swoop, an amphibious Beriyev Be-200, and a Mi-26 Halo heavy transport helicopter equipped with a 15-ton water reservoir are leaving for Israel," Emergencies Ministry spokesperson Irina Andriyanova said.

According to the Army Radio, in addition to the four Greek aircrafts, four others are expected to arrive from France, three from Britain, two from Spain, two from Russia, two from Turkey, two from Cyprus, two from Bulgaria and one from Croatia and Azerbaijan each to prevent the fire from spreading further.

Over 15,000 residents, including 600 prison inmates, were evacuated as the blaze raged out of control forcing the fire chiefs to publicly admit it. The situation is said to have arisen from an illegal landfill site.

Firefighters said the blaze had reached major traffic artery linking the north with Tel Aviv, but that they had succeeded in stopping the blaze from spreading further.

Earlier, 40 people were killed when a bus carrying prison service trainees to assist in the evacuation was engulfed by fire after a falling tree blocked its path.

Elsewhere, at least two more fire crew were reported missing, while the Haifa district police chief was among the injured.

Across the region, traffic crawled to a standstill, with black smoke and flames visible for miles around.

The blaze broke out shortly before lunchtime and spread rapidly across the tinder-dry Carmel countryside, left parched after the hottest November in Israel in 60 years.

One of the first residential areas to be evacuated was Kibbutz Beit Oren, where all 400 residents reached safety before the entire collective farm was razed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that evacuations would continue and that authorities would take no risks where civilian lives were in danger.

"Evacuations will be conducted as needed, with sufficient advance warning. We do not want any more injuries," Netanyahu, who called an emergency cabinet meeting said.

Police also evacuated prisoners from Prison 6 and Carmel Prison, as well as students in Haifa University dormitories, who were transferred to a nearby high school.

Some 200 patients from the Tirat Hacarmel psychiatric hospital were also evacuated.

Netanyahu has admitted that the country is not ready to fight the fires, the worst since the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, and requested Russia, as well as Greece, Cyprus, Spain and some other countries used to tackling large-scale wildfires, to provide assistance.

PTI