Inferno razes Israel forests weooldsforest razed by fire

At the height of the worst blaze in Israeli history, little flakes of white ash fell like snow across Jerusalem and the main road to Tel Aviv was cut.

Surveying the aftermath of the forest fire, which destroyed 2 million pine trees across 5,000 acres of forest and caused pounds 14m damage, the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said yesterday: "The first thing is to find a place to live for those whose homes were hit."

Arson is suspected, but after the hottest July in 100 years the hills west of Jerusalem are tinder dry, and a carelessly-thrown cigarette could easily have started it. On Sunday the smoke turned the sky to the west of Jerusalem a strange dull yellow. Hundreds of people fled five small communities which lay in the path of the fire. Worst affected was Shoresh, about six miles from the city, which lost more than half of its 50 homes.

Thirty-seven people suffered smoke inhalation and the woodland on either side of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was charred for six miles.

"No doubt it's a real disaster," Mr Rabin said after meeting local leaders in Shoresh. He said the fire "was not started by any enemy of Israel".

Menachem Vach, a spokesman for the Jewish National Fund which planted many of the trees in the once-barren hills, said he was sure the fire was caused by "negligence". He did not elaborate. A Jewish fund-raising group from the United States on tour in Israel said it would call on Jewish organisations world-wide to work to renew the pine forests. Mr Rabin promised government help for residents and in restoring the charred woodlands around their homes.

Fire brigades also had to rush to Acre, on the coast north of Haifa, yesterday when an ice cream factory caught fire, forcing the evacuation of part of the city. Local authorities feared that tanks holding 20 tons of ammonia might explode, sending out a cloud of poisonous smoke. Four people were injured.

Despite recent torrid temperatures, residents of Jerusalem are not very fire conscious. On Saturday an exhibition of folk dancing outside the city's council chambers ended in a firework display, sparks from which threatened to set fire to the mayor's office.