Saturday, December 4th, 2010
Fire Toll: 41 Dead, 5 Million Trees Destroyed
After three days of spreading flames and the deaths of 41 people in Israel's worst fire ever, authorities were somewhat optimistic Saturday night that the tide was turning, and that the Carmel fire could be brought under control within a day or two, although some sources in the fire department said that it could take as long as a week to completely douse the flames. So far, over 50,000 dunams (12,500 acres) of forested area – including some 5 million trees - have been destroyed. However, officials said that the fire had still not been brought under control, and that easterly winds, although weaker than they were Friday, could still spread the fire
All 41 victims of the fire were identified over the weekend, and the names of 39 of the victims had been released by Saturday night. The youngest victim was Elad Rivan, a 16 year old student from Haifa, who had volunteered to help firefighters. Elad appeared for duty on Thursday, and was killed as he was working with a firefighting crew from Afula that was trapped by spreading flames. Ten of the victims were buried Friday, and another five funerals are so far scheduled for Sunday.
International help continued to pour in Saturday to help fight the fire. On Saturday night, the world's largest firefighting plane is set to arrive in Israel from the United States. The “super tanker,” which the government has leased from U.S. company Evergreen, can hold over 80,000 liters of water, sixteen times the amount of the average firefighting plane. Planes from Switzerland, Russia, Holland, France, Azerbaijan, and Romania on Saturday joined planes from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey that were working to prevent the spreading of the fire and to douse some of the flames. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that Israel would buy more firefighting planes in order to ensure that future fires are brought under control more quickly.
Speaking to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas said that the PA would be glad to provided whatever help it could in the tragedy. Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for the offer, saying that “neighbors must help each other.”
In what is being taken as a positive sign, residents of some of the towns that were evacuated Thursday night and Friday, including Tirat Hacarmel and the Denya neighborhood of Haifa, were being allowed to return to their homes Saturday night. Authorities said that the smoke cloud over Tirat Hacarmel, which made breathing the air hazardous Friday, had dissipated somewhat, and that the town was now safe from pollution and spreading flames. Many of the roads that had been closed throughout Friday, including Road 4, the main north-south highway in the area, have been reopened. Police have increased their patrols of the evacuated areas to prevent possible looting of empty houses.
Meanwhile, police on Saturday afternoon arrested two 16 year old youths from the village of Usfiya, which itself was heavily damaged in the fire, in connection with the fire. The two brothers were questioned by police, who said that they had apparently had acted with negligence, and did not start the fire intentionally. On Friday night, police said at a press conference that they knew the family who had started the fire, and that they had not acted out of nationalistic or other intentional motivations.
However, reports persisted Saturday that there had been other contributing factors to the fire – specifically, groups and individuals who had thrown firebombs in different areas where firefighters were working, in order to rekindle fires that had gone out. Firefighters and rescue workers reported seeing such individuals throughout Friday, and late in the day, two youths from the village of Daliat al-Carmel were arrested when they were seen acting suspiciously near a site where the flames had recently been doused. They were later released.
Several smaller fires broke out in the Carmel region and in other areas as well, and police said these fires were “copycat arson” blazes being set by individuals or, perhaps, by organized groups. On Saturday night, police were chasing down several suspects who had started a fire in the Jerusalem forest. That fire was doused, and no injuries were reported.
Huge planes to fight Carmel fire
Evergreen Supertanker, which has capacity of 80,000 liters of water to join efforts to put out wildfire in northern Israel on Sunday morning. State to pay some $200,000 an hour for failing to purchase its own firefighting aircraft. Forces hope to contain fire by end of day
Netanyahu said the Evergreen Supertanker, a Boeing 747-200 modified into an aerial firefighting aircraft, was expected to land in Israel from the US on Saturday night, at around 1 am.
He said the contract with the company was signed within an hour after he had heard that "there was such a plane".
Firefighters on Saturday night continued their efforts to contain a wildfire on Israel's Mount Carmel, which has claimed the lives of 41 people since it broke out on Thursday morning. The forces were aided throughout the day by firefighting aircraft sent from many countries across the world.
"At this point we have reached the best situation since the fire began," said Israel Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach. "We are still not talking about controlling the fire. It will take us a day or two and then we'll still have the final extinguishing work, so there is a lot of work ahead."
A senior Israel Air Force officer said Saturday night that the fire had reached its lowest level since breaking out on Thursday. "A new challenge is expected in the morning, with southeastern winds which may lead the blaze to new directions," he said. "The fire may be in control by the end of the day.
The Evergreen Supertanker, the world's largest aerial firefighting plane, was expected to land in Israel on Saturday night and join the fire extinguishing efforts. The American plane, which has a capacity of 80,000 liters of water, is capable of operating in the night as well – as opposed to other firefighting aircraft.
Israel will pay a heavy price - some $200,000 an hour – for failing to purchase firefighting planes throughout the years.
In total, some 30 firefighting aircraft and three helicopters – which arrived from the United States, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Azerbaijan, Spain, Romania, Holland and Canada – are expected to operate on Mount Carmel from Sunday morning.
A senior IAF officer noted that all planes would operate in relatively small areas, where the fire was still raging.
Two Hercules planes carrying 18 tons of firefighting material landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Saturday evening. US ambassador to Israel James Cunningham, who was present when they arrived, promised this assistance was just the beginning, saying further aid would arrive Sunday, including a tactical team.
He added that the Americans were praying for the recovery of the Israelis injured in the fire, including Haifa Police Commander Ahuva Tomer, who is still for her life. "She is a close friend of the American embassy," Cunningham said.
A senior IDF officer said that the defense establishment had warned of the failures in the firefighting lineup on numerous occasions.
"This difficult incident has revealed a weak point, which requires treatment. The State of Israel needs an appropriate firefighting system," he said. The officer admitted that the incident served as "a warning sign" for Israel, in the security aspect as well.
Burnt car in Kibbutz Beit Oren (Photo: Yoav Zitun)
The wildfire has so far burnt some 50,000 dunam (12,300 acres) of land. The firefighting operations continued Saturday night in the Hai-Bar animal and nature reserve near Haifa and west of Haifa University. Fire was also raging near a garbage site in the village of Usfiya and in the western part of Dalyat al-Carmel
Four firefighting teams operating in the Hai-Bar area ran out of water on Saturday evening and were forced to pull back before getting reinforcement. "The fire is 15-20 meters (50-65 feet) high – a wall of flames," their commander reported. "We are fighting fire from three directions," he said. An Israel Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle was reporting of the flame's progress to an Israel Defense Forces officer stationed in the area with the firefighters, who continued to request more and more water.
Israel on fire - NASA satellite image (Photo: AP)
Boaz Rakia of the firefighting services reported earlier of "several areas where the fire is raging". He said that "fires are still erupting from time to time, for example in the Ein Hod and Nir Etzion areas. The fire died down there during the day, but there are still places where it hasn't been completely extinguished. A sudden gust of wind could ignite the fire again. Our people are in those places to provide a response." Some of the residents of Ein Hod and Nir Etzion chose to remain in their communities despite a police evacuation order, and are patrolling the houses in a bid to prevent plunder.
Internal security minister 'not optimistic'
Hezy Levy, a spokesman for Haifa's firefighting services, expressed cautious optimism on Saturday evening, saying that "the battle will be relaunched tomorrow with renewed forces. Some 400 firefighters are expected to arrive from their homes all freshened up, and the aerial activity will resume as well."
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, on the other hand, said during a press briefing at the command post at Haifa University that he remains "not optimistic". "My working assumption is that it will take a few more days. The fleet of planes which will join us tomorrow will provide real aid. You must remember that we hardly engage in fire extinguishing at night."
Carmel forest before fire (Photo: Dafna Meroz)
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi spoke of more than 25 different aircraft which had arrived from various countries. "The weather forecast for tonight is slightly better," he said. "The massive operation of hundreds of tons of water being thrown every hour and dozens of tons of material are eventually leading to the desired income. We'll defeat this fire. It will take a day or two more, and we will then draw the conclusions." Meanwhile, the police have arrested a 16-year-old boy and his 14-year-old brother from the Druze village of Usfiya on suspicion of negligence which started the major fire. The two suspects' mother claimed that her sons were in school when the fire broke out and expressed her hope that they would be released from custody soon. "At this stage we are talking about negligence and nothing more," said Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen. "There have been several cases of arson in the northern district and we have appointed a special investigation team."
Hanan Greenberg, Yair Altman, Attila sOMFALVI, Ahiya Raved, Yoav Zitun, Adi Sardas and Roni Sofer contributed to this report
Grateful prime minister hails international response
By TOVAH LAZAROFF AND HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
Netanyahu calls help Israel received from other nations "heartwarming"; Greek and Turkish pilots fly together in flame-filled skies.
On Sunday, the cabinet will hold a special solidarity meeting in Tirat Carmel to approve a plan to assist victims of the Carmel fire, reconstruct destroyed homes and reforest burnt-out hills.
“The objective here is to deal with these problems as quickly as possible, to cut through the bureaucracy and to allow these people to return to their homes... and rehabilitate their lives as quickly as possible,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Saturday night in Haifa.
'Fire is God punishing Israel for occupying Arab lands'
Photo Gallery: Int'l responders join fire fighting
Once the fire is extinguished, he said, he wanted to create a special system for fighting such blazes in the future from the air.
No country can fight this kind of a fire alone, Netanyahu said as he summarized the government’s efforts during the last three days to put out the blaze, which has killed 41 people and forced 17,000 to flee their homes.
Israel should not be ashamed that it has sought help from other countries, Netanyahu said. There was “no shame” in its plea for assistance.
“It’s part of our existence in the global village. We get help and give help. Israel has provided assistance over the years in rescuing the wounded in other countries and Israel now receives assistance – assistance on a very large scale,” Netanyahu said.
He noted that he had spoken with 30 heads of state, including the United States, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“I must tell you their [the international community’s] enlistment, in the heat of things, the willingness, the immediacy of their desire to help, sometimes before we could even ask for it, these are things that should warm the heart of every Israeli citizen,” said Netanyahu.
An important fact has emerged from this difficult crisis, said Netanyahu. In spite of the harsh personal tragedies, one thing is clear, he said.
“The nation of Israel stands together and many other nations around the world stand together with Israel.”
He could not help but note that on this Hanukka, both Turkish and Greek pilots were flying together with Israeli pilots, Netanyahu said. This was important and would have positive repercussions for Israel, he continued.
The prime minister had spent many hours up north in the past three days, taking helicopter tours over the area, meetings with firefighters, evacuated families and the wounded.
At the same time, he has manned the phones, speaking with leaders from around the world.
US President Barack Obama spoke by phone with Netanyahu Friday to convey America’s condolences and discuss US assistance.
“We are pursuing a ‘full court press’ to help and have the Israeli people in our thoughts and prayers,” Obama told Netanyahu.
So far the US has sent 12,000 liters of fire-suppressing foam and 45 metric tons of fire-retardant spray to be disseminated from planes, and is looking at the possibility of sending air support, according to National Security Council senior Middle East advisor Dan Shapiro. It also sent a team of three expert American firefighters.
“The US has been working overtime in many, many different streams to try to be as responsive as possible to Israel’s needs,” Shapiro said.
Obama also relayed his condolences and American support for Israel throughout the tragedy at the annual White House Hanukka party he hosted Thursday night.
“As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster,” he told the approximately 500 guests in attendance. “Of course, that’s what friends do for each other.”
In response to the fires, US ambassador to Israel James Cunningham issued a disaster declaration, which helped launched the effort to rapidly provide Israel as much US fire fighting assistance as possible.
In addition to the chemicals provided, America is also providing fire-mapping to help local responders get accurate pictures of the extent of the fire and is offering to assess the costs of the fire and what will be needed in the long term to cope with its consequences.
“We are moving as quickly as we can to provide this assistance, and are heartened by similar efforts to contribute resources from Israel’s other friends around the world,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement put out Thursday night, stressing that “we are fully committed to assisting Israel during this tragedy.”
She continued, “My hope is that the fires are extinguished soon. The hearts of the people of the United States go out to the people of Israel, and we stand with them at this difficult time.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron called his Israeli counterpart on Friday afternoon to extend condolences and sympathies for the lives lost in the ongoing forest fires in the Carmel.
“The prime minister extended his sincere condolences and great sympathies for the tragic loss of life in Israel in the ongoing forest fires. The UK had been glad to be able to help through the deployment of two UK helicopters based in Cyprus.
Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked the British government for the help; Britain had been amongst the first nations to provide assistance,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Among those who have sent planes, helicopters and assistance are: Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, France, the United States, Britain, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Jonny Paul contributed to this report from London.
Northern blaze delights many in the Arab world
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Many Arabs also strongly condemned Egypt and Jordan for agreeing to help in extinguishing the blaze, according to Arab media outlets.
Many in the Arab world seem to be happy with the big fire that has been raging in northern Israel over the past few days.
Judging from comments on the blaze from readers in several leading Arab media outlets and websites, a majority believe that God is “punishing” Israel for occupying Arab lands and killing Palestinians, especially during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
Police allow some fire evacuees to return home
Analysis: Heroism, resilience… and gnawing questions
Many Arabs also strongly condemned Egypt and Jordan for agreeing to help in extinguishing the blaze.
Others called on Israel’s enemies, particularly Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah, to seize the opportunity and try to wipe Israel off the face of earth. Only a few readers and viewers expressed sympathy with Israel over the tragedy and loss of many lives.
Following is a sample of the comments that have appeared over the past few days in the Arab media:
“May Allah punish all Arabs who helped put down the fire.
We pray to Allah that the fire will grow and spread to oil wells in the Arab world.” “O Allah, burn them before the Day of Judgement.
O Allah, destroy them and all the enemies of Islam.”
“May Allah take revenge against them and displace them together with our corrupt governments.”
“This is the right time for Iran. If one fire has caused panic in the Zionist entity, where are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah? And where is Syria? One rocket could set thousands of fires.”
“Allah gives time, but never neglects. The Israelis are being punished for their deeds. We hope their end is nearing.”
“Sounds strange that Arabs are sending aid to our enemies. Allah is punishing the Jews by making the fire. No military force or US veto can stop the fire.”
“Thank God for this new Holocaust and shame on the Egyptian authorities who rushed to save the Zionists while continuing to lay siege against our brothers in the Gaza Strip.”
“Thank God for burning the Jews the same way they burned our Muslim brothers in Palestine.”
“To Hizbullah, Hamas and all Arabs: This is a golden opportunity to get rid of Israel. The sea and fire are in front of the Jews and weapons are behind them.”
“This fire is the result of prayers from our prisoners held in occupation jails. The fire of Hell will be even stronger. May those Arabs who are helping the Jews burn with them in Hell.”
“Allahu Akbar! This is an effective weapon. We call on our Palestinian brothers to set fire to all forests.”
“How many prisoners did the wardens torture? Allah has answered the prayers of the oppressed.”
Youngest Victim was 16-Year Old Volunteer
by Gil Ronen
The body of Elad Riven, 16, a volunteer fireman, was identified Friday evening at the Abu Kabir pathology institute. Elad was killed during rescue operations at Beit Oren.
Elad was an only child. He studied at the prestigious 'Re'ali' (Science-oriented) High School in Haifa. His classmates said that when Elad saw flames and smoke billowing during school, he quickly called his mother abd asked her to bring his uniform and take him to join his unit at the site of the fire. He got dressed in the car, on the way to the fire.
"Elad was a hero who ran toward the fire instead of running away from it and saving his life," his mother said on IDF Radio. A close friend of his, Bar Ashkenazi said: "He was an amazing guy, a kid with a heart of gold. He always helped people. He heard about the fire and was on his way immediately."
"His mother tried to convince him not to go, but it was pointless. He decided he would go and that was it. At first she blamed herself but later on she realized that he could not have been stopped. He would have found a way to get there. It is hard to imagine that Elad is not coming back."
The body of Lt.-Col. Lior Boker, Head of Operations branch of the Police's Northern District, was also identified by pathologists in Abu Kabir.
The Commander of the Northern District, Major General Shimon Koren, went to Lt.-Col. Koren's home Friday and informed his family of the tragedy.
Boker was 57. He drove behind the bus that was consumed by fire and his car was also caught in the flames.
Lt.-Col. Ahuva Tomer, Commander of the Police's Haifa Station, is still in critical condition in Rambam Hospital. She is in the Intensive Care Unit suffering from severe burns.