Huge fire out of control in Israel’s Carmel region near Haifa

[3 Dec 2010] A huge fire that apparently started Thursday and grew out of control within hours is burning in Israel’s beautiul Carmel region of hills in the Galilee region just south and east of Haifa, Israel’s major northern port city on its Mediterranean coast.

On Friday, Israeli police said that Haifa — which houses major Israeli oil and gas refinery facilities and pipelines — is out of danger. But, new fires do continue to break out, however.  By Friday evening, the fire had shifted direction, and Haifa University was again threatened. A day earlier, preparations had been made to evacuate the entire city of Haifa, perhaps the most bi-ethnically egalitarian of all Israeli cities.

The LA Times has this graphic map:
LA Times graphic map by Matt Moody

Airborne efforts were called off after darkness, and will resume again on Saturday morning.

Some 41 people who died in the fire Thursday are reportedly now identified — and more casualties are expected.

A large number of the dead were prison guards riding in a bus towards the Dimon Prison [a women’s prison, we learn from Ma’an News Agency] to help in the evacuation which was ordered in the early afternoon.  The fire shifted very suddenly, and trapped the entire bus.  Few, if any, aboard that bus survived.  A group of Haifa police officers riding in a car following that bus were also trapped.  One — Haifa’s Deputy Police Commissioner — is in critical condition. She reportedly arrived at the hospital without any pulse, but a team of doctors managed to revive her.

Israeli police said Friday they believe one or more arsonists may be responsible for starting the fire that were started today in two other sites, as well as possibly the original brush fire that broke out in the Carmel region. Haaretz reported here that an IDF drone is now flying over the forest fire, and had filmed two men who were identified as residents of the Druse village of Daliet al-Carmel trying to ignite flammable material today in the Carmel region. Some of the identified victims are also Druse citizens of Israel.

UPDATE: Haaretz later updated its report to say that it has been determined that the two were not responsible for setting any fires, and released.

Now, experts say, it appears more likely that the main Carmel fire is the result of negligence.

The same Haaretz story reported that Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said: “The fire has spread to other areas throughout the day despite the efforts of dozens of foreign aircraft, and the situation is getting worse”, and added that “A Home Front Command officer also said that at this point the fire is only growing stronger”.

Israel, like neighboring countries in the region, is still experiencing summer-like temperatures during the day, and an increasingly-severe drought. There has been no winter rain so far, despite prayers organized recently at the Western or Wailing Wall in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

The Haaretz story says that “Authorities are closely monitoring wind directions and are preparing for the possibility that fires will spread to additional locations. Buses have been moved into to positions that will allow for additional evacuations if necessary”.

So far, about 150,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and places of work or study, and evacuations continued on Friday.   Kibbutz Oren is reported to be entirely destroyed by flames.  Many thousands of acres of forest and trees have been burnt.

Parts of two of Israel’s major north-south highways – No. 4 + No. 2. which both run parallel to and near the Mediterranean coast – were closed to traffic on Friday morning.  Road No. 2 is now reportedly reopened.

Thursday night, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) had joined the firefighters who had arrived from all parts of the country, but Israel’s leaders conceded that the fire had gotten out of control, and they appealed for outside help.

Israel’s State President Shimon Peres noted that the fire broke out just after the start of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, which is celebrated by the lighting of one additional candles each day for eight days to commemorate a “miraculous” burning (for eight days, on a small quantity of pure oil that should have only lasted for one day) of the eternal flame that had been re-lit in the cleansed and purified Second Jewish Temple after it had been damaged by warring soldiers.

On Friday, help was arriving from — among others — Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy, France, England, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Switzerland, Egypt and Jordan.  This included fire-fighting helicopters, and chemicals used to smother flames.  El-Al was reportedly flying a special flame-fighting liquid from France.

George Hale of Ma’an News has just tweeted (Friday afternoon) that Palestinian Authority firefighters have joined the battle against the blaze — apparently not in Israel, but where it has now spread to the northern West Bank. UPDATE: The story is now posted here. Ma’an reports that “Brigadier General Ahmad Ar-Riziq told Ma’an that Palestinian firefighters were able to help control the fire which has spread to Palestinian villages At-Tayba and Barta’a west of Jenin”.  [An earlier version of the headline on this story elliptically refers to the situation as the “northern blaze”, but it has now been edited to read, simply: “Palestinian firefighters join efforts to control blaze”.]

The Ma’an story also notes that “Israel’s meager firefighting services were under enormous strain on Friday as they battled the worst fire in the country’s 62-year history.  Israel has a nationwide firefighting force of around 1,500 officers, a number considered woefully inadequate to deal with the inferno, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appeal urgently for international help.  And the force is also under-equipped, lacking a significant stock of vehicles and running low on reserves of firefighting materials such as retardant after a dry summer that sparked a series of forest fires”.

Aluf Benn reported in Haaretz that a year ago, Israel’s firefighters went on strike, “and warned that the system is far from being able to provide for defending the population. According to the firemen’s association, the international standards require one fireman for every 1,000 citizens, and in Israel the ratio is nearly one in 10,000. Over and over the firemen warned that they can’t shoulder the responsibility they are given”.

Benn wrote in his story, posted here, that this indicates Israel is totally unprepared to go to war against Iran: “Under such circumstances, it is best for Israel not to embark on war against Iran, which will involve thousands of missiles being fired on the home front. After the Second Lebanon War, which exposed how pathetic the civil defense system was, reports were written, exercises were held, but everything broke down under the stress of a real emergency on the Carmel range – an area that already experienced the trauma of Hezbollah missiles”.

Both Benn, and Yossi Sarid, a former government official who wrote another article published today in Haaretz, pointed to the special responsibility in these shortcomings of Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, of the Shas religious party. Sarid wrote, with pointed political irony, here that “The minister is ready to set Jerusalem on fire at any moment as well”.

Sarid also noted that “All the tragedies befalling us have a common denominator – they are not surprising at all. Haifa’s mayor rushed to the scene and said, ‘We knew it was only a matter of time before disaster struck’. He was referring to the neighboring landfill, where the fire most likely started. And if it wasn’t the source of yesterday’s brushfire, it will be the source of tomorrow’s. The country is full of such garbage dumps where nobody bothers to enforce the law. The whole country is at risk, but especially Haifa, whose surrounding mountains were recently described by the industry, trade and labor minister as ‘an atom bomb’.”

Israel’s Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that “We have Israeli and foreign planes dousing the flames, and we need more planes”.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Friday that “Israel knew there was a shortage of firefighting planes”, and reportedly told Israel Radio that The issue of firefighting planes was discussed a number of times… It’s been spoken about but here nothing moves until a disaster occurs”.  According to an account of his remarks on the YNet website, Lieberman added that “There is no doubt that we should have bought large planes without waiting for this alarm to go off… the damage done is now far more than the price of the most expensive plane in the world, and when referring to human life then of course the issue of cost is irrelevant.”  According to YNet, Lieberman noted that Israel needs planes “because the Carmel Forest’s slopes are difficult to handle with trucks”.  This report can be read in full here.

In a separate story, YNet reported that Israeli firefighters “began to use extinguishing materials donated by Haifa Chemicals Friday morning, after running out of fire retardants owned by the state. Privately owned crop-dusting planes are currently using the 20 tons of donated chemicals to help Greek planes fighting the flames raging in Israel’s northern forests. But Israel Chemicals Ltd. said it had offered its storerooms for state use as early as Thursday, and that authorities had not responded to the offer. Chim-Nir, a private dusting company responsible for aerial firefighting in Israel, usually uses a fire retardant purchased from France. But in the course of fighting the blaze Thursday the stock was discovered lacking, as a large number of fires have had to be put out in recent months and supplies were not renewed. Chim-Nir ordered an emergency shipment from France early Friday, but it is scheduled to depart only only at 11 am and arrive towards evening. In the meantime, Greek planes are using sea-water to fight the fire, using a technology Israel has so far refused to purchase”. This story is posted here.

The Jerusalem Post has reported here that New York City Mayor [Michael Bloomberg] has been in touch with Israel’s Acting Consul-General in New York, Ido Aharoni, who “requested Fire Trol 931, a flame retardant Israel needs to combat the fires. At Bloomberg’s request, Deputy Fire Commissioner Francis X. Gribbon immediately called the Acting Counsel General back, ascertained that the fire retardant Israel needs is not one that the FDNY uses in New York, and had the FDNY reach out to the United States Forestry Service, which does use Fire Trol 931 to fight forest fires”. This is due to be flown to Israel on Friday night.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who has established his own “command center” up near Haifa [though he is not the Commander of the IDF or the Commander-in-Chief as the American President is , for example]– not too far from his personal family home in Caesarea — has personally thanked Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the arrival of two fire-fighting planes.

UPDATE: Haaretz has reported here that Netanyahu and Erdogan spoke today over the phone, and that it was the first time that the two leaders had spoken since Netanyahu took office (in February 2009). Netanyahu apparently initiated the call…

Arrival of Foreign Aid to IAF Bases, Dec 2010

IDF photo of arrival of Foreign Aid to IAF bases – 2 to 3 December 2010 – a Turkish plane

This Turkish help arrived despite the fact that Turkey is still waiting for an apology for Israel’s naval assault on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara on the high seas on 31 May which caused the deaths of 9 Turkish men and one American high school student of Turkish origin.

UPDATE: By Friday evening, Netanyahu was reportedly back in his Jerusalem office, again on the phone to countries around the world to try to round up more fire-fighting assistance. Earlier, Netanyahu convened his Cabinet for an emergency meeting in Jerusalem.

The IDF has reported Friday morning that there are now 8 fire-fighting airplanes and 3 fire-fighting helicopters in Israel at the moment, as well as 3 firetrucks and 150 firemen from other countries.

But, the country — which focuses on other sorts of foes and enemies — seems to have been utterly unprepared to fight a major forest fire.

UPDATE: Netanyahu said after the cabinet meeting on Friday that “our firefighting measures cannot provide an answer to forest fires of this magnitude, especially in the face of such winds. We do not have such equipment. Only airborne forces have such equipment”… He said, further, that “We are also in contact with the US. We are checking into the possibility of bring more planes here, if it becomes necessary, and from Canada as well. We have already hired an American plane from a private company, a ‘supertanker’ that will arrive here tomorrow afternoon. We are in he midst of a disaster of international proportions and we must use all forces, first of all to extinguish the fire; that is the first goal … Next week we will submit for Cabinet decision and implementation a plan to purchase aircraft.”

Surprisingly, it was later announced in Washington that American assistance in this emergency would come from USAID, which issued a press release saying that “Through its partnership with the U.S. Forest Service’s Disaster Assistance Support Program, USAID is deploying a team of experts to join their Israeli counterparts to help combat the fires. In addition, USAID is sending 45 metric tons of Fire-Trol fire retardant and 12,000 liters of WD881 Class A foam, valuable tools in the suppression of wildland fires. The Unites States stands prepared to provide additional assistance should it be necessary”.

In the press release USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is also quoted as saying:”USAID is leading an aggressive response. We are delivering much-needed fire retardant and we have immediately deployed firefighting and disaster management experts to Israel.”

Meanwhile, Israel has an elite unit (named the “Alpine Unit”) that will operate on skis and has trained in “Judea and Samaria” [the upper West Bank] and on the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon along the country’s northern border zone with Lebanon and Syria. Pictures taken from 2002 to 2007 [apparently in Lebanon?!] are available on the IDF’s Flikr photostream, here which informs us that “The unit carries out regional defense tactics, shooting while skiing at high speeds, snowmobiling, and riding Sno-Cats”.

Down the Slopes - IDF photo taken in February 2007 in Hasbaya, Al-Nabatiya LB

IDF photo of “Alpine Unit” training in February 2004 in Hasbaya, Al-Nabatiya, LB [?!] – setting out “to protect the safety of the many visitors of the Hermon”.

Teamwork by IDF - Alpine Unit

Rescue Drill

IDF photo of “Alpine Unit” Rescue Drill training in January 2004 in Hasbaya, Al-Nabatiya, LB [?!]

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