JERUSALEM—Israeli officials said an inferno that has raged for four days in a northern Israeli forest was largely under control by nightfall, helped in part by the world’s largest flying fire extinguisher — a Boeing 747 from the United States carrying 75,000 litres of water and fire retardants that joined the efforts on Sunday.
Two teenage brothers were arrested Saturday in connection with the country’s worst forest fire, which has killed 41 people, most of them prison guards whose bus was trapped by the flames while they were en route to evacuate a prison. The blaze has been tearing through the Carmel forest near Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa, since Thursday.
Officials spoke optimistically for the first time Sunday about taming the blaze. At sundown, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told The Associated Press: “Almost all of the fire is under control.”
“The general picture is better, more optimistic,” firefighters’ spokesman Boaz Rakia told a news conference, but warning, “It will take days to extinguish the fire completely.”
Rosenfeld said there have been 20 arson attempts in other forests over the past 48 hours, and four people have been arrested.
The huge fire in the Carmel forest caught the country — which prides itself on its technological prowess, ability to improvise and rescue expertise — woefully unprepared. That has provoked a public backlash against officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down.
Netanyahu has appealed to the international community for help, and countries in the immediate region and as far afield as Russia and the U.S. have dispatched planes, firefighters and materials to help battle the blaze.
Israel leased the Boeing 747 Supertanker from a private U.S. company. It has a number of advantages in addition to its size and capacity. It is able to operate at night, a feature that the other firefighting aircraft in the mission do not share. As a result, planes have been grounded by 5 p.m., and winds have been able to whip up nearly stilled fires after nightfall.
Palestinian firefighters ordinarily barred from entering Israel passed through the barrier that divides the two peoples Sunday to join the international effort. Team leader Ibrahim Ayish, of the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, said the 21 Palestinian firefighters hoped that by helping to put out the blaze, they could ignite some goodwill between two sides more often embroiled in conflict.
“I hope it could be a good opening for co-operation, more humanitarian assistance, and peace,” Ayish said in a telephone interview from northern Israel.
The last time Ayish was in Israel was 10 years ago — before the Jewish state, fearing militant attacks, began severely restricting the number of Palestinians allowed to enter. It began erecting a barrier of towering concrete slabs and electronic fence several years later.
Rosenfeld said he could not confirm Israeli media reports that two teenage boys arrested inadvertently sparked the blaze with a bonfire and a water pipe. Their aunt, identified only as Abir in an army radio interview, denied they were responsible. The ages of the boys were not immediately known.
Although the forest fire raging in Israel’s north is small by international standards, it is considered a calamity in Israel, where only seven per cent of the land is wooded. The Carmel forest makes up five per cent of that forested land and nearly half of it — roughly 52 square kilometres of woodland — has burned.
Israeli firefighters have complained for years of undersized crews, outdated equipment and minimal supplies. While Israel has a highly sophisticated air force, its firefighting force doesn’t have a single plane. It ran out of flame retardants on the first day of the blaze.
Netanyahu said Saturday that Israel would form an airborne firefighting force. On Sunday, he called for swift action to compensate victims and rehabilitate the area.
“I don’t want delays. I don’t want red tape. I want processes to be shortened and rapid solutions,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, held up north in a sign of solidarity with stricken residents.