Firefighters make headway in Israel bush blaze | world | Hindustan Times
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Firefighters make headway in Israel bush blaze

world Updated: Dec 06, 2010 14:54 IST

Israel allowed people evacuated in the face of a raging bush fire to return to their homes on Saturday, but firefighters noted that while the blaze was no longer the raging inferno it had been, it was still not fully under control.

Police, meanwhile, arrested two youths on suspicion that their negligence had sparked Israel's worst-ever fire, which broke out shortly before noon on Thursday on the Carmel hill southeast of the northern city of Haifa.

By Saturday night, the blaze had claimed 41 lives and - abetted by strong winds, unseasonably warm weather and ground parched by drought - had destroyed around 50 sq km of land. including five million trees, and had forced 17,000 people from 14 communities to flee their homes.

Residents of five of those locations, mostly to the west and northwest of the area in flames, were allowed home Saturday afternoon, but a police spokesman said this did not mean the fire was under control.

It did however indicate an "improvement" in the situation, spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.

Fire Services spokesman Boaz Arkia said Saturday night that the firefighters hoped to get control of the blaze by Monday.

"Tonight is very problematic for us because the winds are changing direction and will become stronger. We must wait until morning to reassess the situation," he told The Jerusalem Post.

Firefighters were worried that during the night, when firefighting aircraft could not be used, the strong winds could reignite some doused areas and, by changing direction, spread the flames.

Rosenfeld had earlier confirmed that the fire was most probably caused by negligence, not arson. On Saturday afternoon he said that two youths - whose age Israel Radio put at 16 - were being questioned to see whether it was their negligence that led to the inferno near the Druze village of Isafiyah, about 10 km southeast of Haifa.

According to the radio, the youths had smoked a water pipe and drunk coffee, and left the scene without making sure the fire they had started was properly extinguished.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing a news conference Saturday night, thanked countries that had sent aid to Israel to help battle the blaze. Such assistance, he said, was "heart-warming".

He said a Boeing super-tanker, capable of carrying 80,000 litres of water, would arrive Saturday night in Israel to reinforce the other aircraft already operating from first light to dusk.

These aircraft, from Russia, Greece, France, Bulgaria, Britain, Turkey and Italy, made 250 sorties over the fire Saturday, crisscrossing the area of the fire and dumpling water or fire-retardant on the flames.

A further nine aircraft were scheduled to arrive overnight, bringing to 33 the number of planes fighting the fire.

On the ground, army bulldozers drove slowly through the thick vegetation, clearing paths intended as fire-breaks.

On Saturday night the official death toll was still 41 people.

The latest fatality was a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter named Elad Rebin, who perished while trying to save prison service cadets whose bus had been caught in the inferno. Rebin's charred remains were identified Saturday morning. He had previously been listed as missing.

Rosenfeld said 38 of the dead were prison service officers, and the remaining two were police officers.

Two other fires near the town of Ma'alot, about 40 km northeast of the Carmel fire and near the northern village of Basmat Tab'un, erupted Saturday. The first was brought under control and in both cases police suspect arson.

Police said one of the main problems they faced was evacuees needing to be rescued after returning to their homes prematurely. Others, who had refused the order to be evacuated, were also extracted Saturday morning.

Authorities asked Israelis not to flock to the north of the country to watch the firefighters at work.

While many Israelis were arriving to bring the firefighters refreshment, others, Israel Radio reported, were offering advice, some of it practical, on how best to fight the fire.