Israeli prison guards killed in 'worst ever' forest fires

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The Independent Online

Dozens of Israeli prison guards perished yesterday after their bus caught fire and overturned as the deadliest blaze in Israel's history ravaged the north of the country.

The guards were en route to evacuate the Damun prison, housing both Israeli and Palestinian inmates, amid fears that a fire could engulf the jail, the Israeli prison service said.

"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "We are harnessing all the forces of the state to deal with this disaster and rescue those who are injured and to stop the fire."

He appealed to Russia, Greece, Cyprus and Italy for help as fire commissioner Shimon Romach told Israel Radio there was a shortage of planes and helicopters to tackle the blaze.

Up to 40 people are believed to have died in what officials described as the country's worst blaze in living memory. The fire service issued an urgent appeal for all of Israel's firefighters – believed to number 1,500 – to help fight the fire as it continued to rage long after darkness fell.

All of those believed to have died were aboard the bus, an unnamed police official told Agence France Presse, while emergency services said three of the passengers escaped with critical injuries.

The blaze broke out yesterday morning and quickly spread through the Carmel area, near the city of Haifa in northern Israel. Rescuers started evacuating the Damun prison, which holds 500 inmates, and surrounding villages and hotels in the early afternoon.

The prison service said the bus was carrying guards "on their way to help in the rescue activities" at the prison when it was trapped in the inferno. Israeli television broadcast images of the charred shell of the bus, and firefighters described terrible scenes.

"Anyone who's ever seen a firestorm will know. They could not survive it, they had no protection, they just fell to the road and burned alive," firefighter Dudu Vanunu told Channel Two.

Several homes in a kibbutz were destroyed as police evacuated hotels and homes. Route 4, a major north-south highway, was closed and power cuts affected much of the area.

Yael, from Haifa, told the Ha'aretz newspaper: "A friend of mine that worked with the horses [on the kibbutz] called me and told me that there's a large fire and that they might need to evacuate the horses. A few minutes later they decided to evacuate – too late, in my opinion."

Officials speculated that the fire was caused by people burning rubbish in the area.

Israel is experiencing an unusually dry winter after a long and hot summer. There has been no significant rainfall since early spring.