Wildfires: The one deadly enemy Israel was unprepared to fight

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The Independent Online

All too used to honing its wartime prowess against military enemies, Israel was still struggling last night to contain a peacetime enemy, the worst wildfire – and one of the biggest natural disasters – in its history.

Countries including Britain and, despite the crisis in its relations with Israel, Turkey have joined an international aid effort to help fight a fire which had claimed 41 lives by yesterday afternoon.

Most of those killed were prison officer cadets who had been brought by bus into the Carmel area where the fire raged, south-east of Haifa, to help evacuate inmates of the Damon prison just outside this kibbutz, one of the communities worst hit by the fire. Local media reported that their bus had been trapped in the flames after a fallen tree blocked the road as their driver sought to escape from the fire.

Police predicted that the fire would not be brought under control until midday today and confirmed that 17,000 residents in areas affected by the fire, including the affluent Denya neighbourhood of Haifa itself, had been evacuated from their homes as more than 7,500 acres of forest were burned out.

While the cause was still unknown last night after the fire had raged for 30 hours, the rapidity with which it spread was a result of wind and abnormally dry conditions. The area has seen virtually no rain for six months and had unusually high temperatures throughout November. It has also prompted angry political and media criticism about Israel's ability to tackle the blaze in the light of repeated warnings that firefighters did not have adequate manpower or equipment to deal with such a disaster. The firefighters association had said the country had only 10 per cent of the firefighters it needed.

The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledged yesterday that Israel had never "prepared itself ... for such a need". Mr Netanyahu described the blaze as an "unprecedented disaster" and said of the foreign aid effort: "I think this symbolises an unprecedented response to our request for international help."

He also made his first telephone call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since taking office, thanking him for providing two firefighting aircraft. Relations between the two countries had soured, in part because of Mr Erdogan's outspoken opposition to Israel's siege of Gaza. Mr Netanyahu reportedly told Mr Erdogan he hoped the incident would "offer an opportunity for improved relations between our two countries".

From a vantage point near Haifa University yesterday it was possible to see flames and smoke rising from seven or eight different points in the Carmel hills, as light aircraft repeatedly circled the fire zone dropping their payloads of chemical fire retardant.

Medics at Haifa's Rambam hospital said Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer was improving yesterday after she was critically injured, with burns to 85 per cent of her body, after driving behind the bus carrying the prison officer cadets. Israeli TV repeatedly showed footage of an interview with Ms Tomer minutes before the bus was trapped in the flames, in which she explained that there was a "problem" with the bus and that she was going to investigate.

Police arrested two residents of the mainly Druze village of Daliat al-Carmel on suspicion they had attempted to ignite new fires in the Carmel hills yesterday, after they had been spotted by an Israeli Air Force drone.

Several of Israel's most prominent commentators were scathing yesterday about what they saw as the inadequacy of its firefighting capability.

Ben Caspit, of the daily newspaper Maariv, wrote: "A country above which hover spy satellites ... is also the country that has its firefighting material run out after seven hours, a country whose fire trucks date back to the previous century, and a country that therefore finds itself caught, standing before the flames, with its pants down."