Israel’s biggest inferno ever kills 41

THE biggest inferno in Israel’s history claimed 41 people overnight as the Pentagon mobilised the National Guard to help fire-fighters.

At the same time, the US said it would send 45 tonnes of fire retardant in emergency steps.

US President Barack Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call that the US is also dispatching 12,000 litres of class A foam, in addition to technical assistance teams with specialised expertise and equipment, said White House aid Ben Rhodes.

The Pentagon was mobilising National Guard troops at time of publication, and readying assets equipped with targeted fire-fighting systems, while the White House was seeking further private resources to help with the effort.

The fire-retardant chemicals are due to arrive this weekend and the first of several technical teams is scheduled to land in Israel today.

The US President “expressed his deepest condolences on behalf of the American people for the tragic loss of life resulting from the fires in northern Israel”, a White House statement said, adding that Mr Obama had called Netanyahu as he headed home from an unannounced visit to US troops in Afghanistan.

“We are pursuing a ‘full court press’ to help and have the Israeli people in our thoughts and prayers,” it said.

The statement added that Mr Obama vowed to work hard in identifying “a variety” of fire-fighting aircraft to help Israel.

Mr Rhodes said the two leaders did not discuss any other topics and agreed that US and Israeli officials would stay in touch.

Australia also offered help. “Australia knows directly the devastating impact inflicted by bushfires,” Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said.

“Australia stands ready to offer assistance to Israel,” he said.

Mr Netanyahu, appearing on television, said earlier that Spain, Greece and Cyprus had responded to his call for assistance and that he would soon make a similar request of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

A major surprise was an offer of two aircraft from Turkey, whose relations with Israel have deteriorated sharply in the past two years, particularly after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks in a clash last May aboard a vessel attempting to break the Gaza blockade.

The first fire-fighting aircraft to arrive was a helicopter from Bulgaria.

Israel has one of the most powerful air forces in the world, capable of reaching targets more than 1500km away, but few aircraft are able to fight fires at home.

Almost all the fatalities were prison guard trainees on a bus coming to help evacuate a prison threatened by the fire. The flames overwhelmed the bus on a narrow forest road.

The police chief of Haifa, Ahuva Tomer, suffered burns over most of her body when the fire, borne by wildly shifting winds, overtook her car as she inspected the scene.

The fire was by far the largest Israel has experienced.

It broke out on the edge of the Druze villages of Isfiyeh and spread rapidly over more than 8sq km, helped by strong winds and tinder-dry brush.

The US was “standing by to provide additional assistance”, US Agency for International Development official Nancy Lindborg told reporters, adding that a three-member technical assistance team was on its way.

Thousands of Israeli rescuers and firemen backed by fire crews from around the globe meanwhile battled the fire, as high winds drove flames towards the northern port city of Haifa. Four people were still missing and officials warned the death toll could rise.

Police reported another 17 people injured, including three in serious condition and one listed as critical.

By nightfall yesterday, more than 17,000 people had been evacuated from their homes and the fire had incinerated more than 4000 hectares of land, with flames reaching the southern outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city.

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