Donald Macintyre: A smouldering hillside where once was lush green foliage

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Early yesterday afternoon, a solitary fox crossed the eerily deserted road to Beit Oren in search, no doubt, of a safe haven from the fire that had raged since Thursday. The scorched hillside behind him was a smouldering testament to the fire's ferocity, the lush green foliage of the Carmel forest – known locally as little Switzerland – reduced to ash here, the pall of smoke above the hills visible 50 kilometres to the south.

Inside the kibbutz – closed to the public by the police – it was even easier to understand what he was running from. Perhaps a dozen charred and still smoking buildings were burned out, their contents destroyed. The wreckage of two cars devoured by the fire – only one of them just recognisable as a Mazda 323, lay in a street, precipitately abandoned by its fleeing residents.

In someone's garden you could see the blackened, lifeless leaves of what 24 hours earlier had been an extravagantly spreading cactus; outside one of the houses, half of a severed timber telegraph pole was still burning, hanging crazily from the overhead cables it was supposed to support.

David Kneller had been the last Beit Oren kibbutznik to leave at around 5pm on Thursday, as the fire came licking up the steep hillside from the east and yesterday he was the first who dared to come back. He was greeted with the melancholy sight of what he estimated to be 35 apartments consumed by the fire, including his own and those of three members of his immediate family.

Close to tears, this phlegmatic 54-year-old, a resident here for 20 years, said: "I don't want to say. I cannot say how I feel. It's a terrible feeling."

Mr Kneller, who runs a riding school, said that one of his nine horses had been "terribly wounded" by the fire, but that the other eight were unharmed.

Yet yesterday there was no sight as sombre as that on a bend on Route 721, just outside Beit Oren, where the incinerated metal cage that had been the bus carrying its payload of young prison guard cadets was still parked where it had been consumed by a conflagration from which its driver had been unable to escape.

The windows, the upholstery, the roof, was no more; all that was left of the immolated tyres were the steel cords that had reinforced them from the inside. Most macabre of all the metal frames of the seats had been thrown backwards to an angle of 45 degrees, apparently by the sheer force of the heat that had ripped through the bus from front to back. On the road beside the bus lay the singed remains of a sheaf of papers, packed with carefully written notes from a prison department officer's course, the reminder of a young cadet's hopes for a career halted before it had even begun.