Israel battles forest fire with foreign help
HAIFA, Israel (AP) – Responding to an unprecedented Israeli distress call, aircraft from Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Britain dumped sea water and flame retardant Friday, battling a woodland inferno that has killed dozens, displaced thousands and ravaged one of the Holy Land’s most prized forests.
As the country mourned the dead, Israelis – long known for their high-tech society and vaunted rescue missions abroad – were stunned at their firefighters’ helplessness in quelling the blaze, the worst forest fire in the nation’s history.
Still, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – embattled over the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort – it was also a chance to show that Israel was perhaps not so isolated after all. Even the Palestinian Authority pitched in with firefighting units.
Suspicions of arson persisted on Day Two of the blaze as it rampaged through the Carmel Forest near Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Police said small brush fires that broke out Friday appeared to have been deliberately set, though police chief David Cohen said it was possible the main fire erupted because of carelessness.
Anguished families began burying the 41 dead – most of them prison guards who perished Thursday when the blaze engulfed a bus that was transporting them to evacuate a prison. Fewer than half had been identified by late Friday because bodies had been burned beyond recognition.
The human tragedy was compounded by the loss of precious woodland in a country where only 7 percent of the land is forested. Tree-planting has an almost mystical quality here: For decades, Jews the world over have dropped coins into blue-and-white boxes of the Jewish National Fund, which has planted 240 million trees in the Carmel Forest and elsewhere across Israel since its founding in 1901.
Though the scorched woodland covered an area of only about eight square miles (21 square kilometers) – or some 1 percent of Israel’s forest land – the fire was felt as a deep national loss.
Outside Haifa, wind-driven flames towering nearly 100 feet (30 meters) turned the sky crimson as they spread across hilly pine forest toward the Mediterranean Sea. Flying back and forth, helicopters and planes scooped up sea water and dumped it on the blaze. Turkish planes scattered powdery white flame retardant over the smoky hills, dotted with charred banana trees and cypress trees stripped of their leaves.
The eruption of the blaze Thursday overwhelmed Israel’s small firefighting force and prompted an unprecedented call for international help from a country better known for helping in other countries’ disaster zones.
Yoram Levy, a spokesman for Israel’s fire and rescue service, said firefighters battling strong winds were having trouble accessing the mountains and valleys.
“We don’t have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water,” Levy said. “It is not enough for a large-scale fire.”
Some 100 firefighters from Bulgaria arrived as well as fire extinguishing planes and crews from Greece, Britain and Cyprus, Israeli officials said. Additional planes were offered by other EU nations and Russia. The U.S. was sending a team of firefighting experts as well as tons of fire retardant and foam, and pledged to help with additional aircraft.
President Barack Obama discussed the fire and expressed his condolences for the loss of life in a telephone call to Netanyahu from Air Force One after it departed from Afghanistan. Obama had made an unannounced holiday visit to U.S. troops there.
Israel’s Mideast neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, also sent firefighters and equipment.
Netanyahu thanked the many states that stepped in to help Israel, saying the “one bright spot” in the calamity was “the solidarity of the peoples of the world with the people of Israel.”
The message had special resonance in a country where people perceive increased hostility from a world eager to see creation of a Palestinian state.
“The international response to our call was exceptional,” Netanyahu said during a visit to the north. “It demonstrates that there is affection for Israel and identification with it from all corners of the Earth.”
The help that drew the most attention came from Turkey, once a close ally but now a vocal critic – most recently because of a deadly Israeli raid in May on a flotilla bound for Gaza, the Palestinian territory run by Hamas militants. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed.
For the first time since the raid, Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him for Turkey’s help. “I am certain it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries,” his office quoted him as saying.
But Erdogan was quick to reply that the help did not mean ties would return to normal and that his country still expected an apology and compensation for the victims. “If these matters are settled this could start a positive process for the future,” he said.
Turkey was not alone in setting aside tensions to help out. The Palestinian Authority, which recently cut off U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Netanyahu government, also dispatched firefighters and trucks.
By early evening, the fire still raged out of control and some 17,000 people had been evacuated from 14 communities and facilities, said Cohen, the police chief. Most were from outside Haifa, a city of 265,000.
The talk of arson provoked new tensions with Israel’s Arab minority – tensions heightened after police briefly arrested two Israeli Druse men on suspicion they were planning to set a new fire on Friday.
The men were quickly cleared and released, and a Druse official, Carmel Nasser a-Din, accused authorities of “irresponsibly and very maliciously” making allegations in their haste to find a scapegoat.
Israel’s inability to contain the blaze itself created an uproar in a country that prides itself on its ability to improvise and is known for sending rescue teams and medical personnel to help in disaster relief efforts across the globe.
With the country’s resources focused primarily on its military and police forces, firefighters have been undermanned and underfunded for years.
Israel, a country of 7.6 million, has only 1,400 firefighters – or 16 for every 100,000 residents. Although a direct comparison is impossible because Israel is so sparsely forested, that number compares unfavorably to other developed nations, such as the U.S., Japan and Greece, which have between five and seven times as many firefighters per capita.
Commentators were quick to draw broader conclusions.
Aluf Benn, a columnist for the Haaretz daily, said Israel’s inability to control the flames proved it was not ready for a massive attack by Iran.
Maariv columnist Ben Caspit noted that Israel, a country that carries out daring military operations and is a high-tech leader, is also a nation “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.”