By Daniel Eisenbud, JPost—
Hundreds of local emergency personnel, aided by an international fleet of firefighting planes, worked throughout the weekend to contain fires that continued to spread in the country’s Center and North, displacing thousands and destroying hundreds of homes, businesses and public areas.
According to officials, the fires were under control Saturday night, but fears of high winds that would continue to fan the flames caused the emergency personnel to remain on high alert.
Since Tuesday, an estimated 750 hectares (1,850 acres) of forests and rural areas have been destroyed in Zichron Ya’acov, Neveh Shalom, Modi’in, Neveh Ilan, and Nataf, the firefighting service of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund said.
The worst hit communities over the weekend were Beit Meir and Nataf in the Judean Hills, and the settlement of Halamish, about 10 km. northwest of Ramallah.
More than 100 people had been treated for smoke inhalation and some 35 suspected arsonists had been arrested as of Saturday night, as police and firefighters remain on high alert.
On Friday, firefighters and police were called to Beit Meir in the Judean Hills, where hundreds of residents were evacuated from their homes, several of which were badly damaged by the blaze.
“Police carried out house-to-house searches to make sure that no one was in the area of the fire,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “Two suspects were arrested in connection to the fire.”
Rosenfeld added that police units and firefighters stayed in the area, where a command and information center was set up to assist residents and ensure the blaze remained under control.
“Units were deployed to give a fast response, and coordination was made with Israeli and international aircraft, including a Supertanker, that are ready to give an immediate response,” he said.
After evacuating nearly 90,000 Haifa residents on Thursday, when blazes spread to eight neighborhoods, police and firefighters, aided by a Palestinian crew, responded to a number of new fires on Friday spread by high winds, Rosenfeld said.
“Palestinian firefighters are working with Israeli firefighters and policemen in and around Haifa dealing with severely damaged areas,” said Rosenfeld. “Joint coordination on the ground took place as part of the overall efforts to deal with the fires.”
“Police immediately mobilized in the area, and are searching houses to prevent injuries,” he added. “Airplanes and police helicopters are also in the area coordinating to put out the fires.”
A US Supertanker, which arrived late Friday evening from the United States, took off on its first mission Saturday afternoon. Based on the Boeing 747, the plane was seen extinguishing the flames near Jerusalem, adjacent to Highway 1.
The Supertanker is the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world and is capable of carrying up to 19,600 gallons of retardant or water.
“We are here to help you,” said the staff of the plane, who made the 14-hour journey from Nevada.
As of Friday night, Rosenfeld said residents of Haifa could safely return to the following neighborhoods: Ramat Alon; Ramot Remez; Ramat Golda; Ramat Begin; Ramot Hen; and Ramat Almogi.
“Police and firefighting units will continue to assist the public for as long as necessary,” he said.
Later on Friday night, fires spread by high winds broke out in Nataf in the Judean Hills about 10 km. west of Jerusalem, resulting in the evacuation of hundreds of residents until firefighters, aided by planes from several countries, contained the blaze.
“During house-to-house searches, police found eight people who were quickly taken out of the area without injuries,” Rosenfeld said, noting that no injuries were reported.
“The area around Nataf was closed, and assessments were made as police units and firefighters dealt with the blaze.”
Police and firefighters continued through the night to battle the flames, which died down and were contained hours later.
However, residents were not permitted to return to their homes as of Saturday. Rama’s Kitchen, a landmark restaurant in the community, burned to the ground after a wedding party there was evacuated.
Well into Saturday morning, police and firefighters also fought a fire in Halamish, also known as Neveh Tzuf, where 45 homes were damaged.
“All of the residents were evacuated to a safe zone, as fires surrounded the area,” said Rosenfeld.
“Police and fire-fighters carried out a house-to-house search to make sure no one was left in the neighborhood. No injuries were reported.”
Moshe Adler, chapter head of United Hatzalah for Haifa, said, “Tens of volunteers have left their jobs and families and are joining the firefighters, police officers, and other rescue workers to help evacuate and rescue residents, children and the elderly in the affected areas.
“It is important that our volunteers join the effort and be present in order to provide first aid to any resident or firefighter who might require assistance during the evacuation,” Adler added. “So far, a small number of people have been treated for light smoke inhalation.”
Additionally, ZAKA, under the leadership of Special Units commander Haim Outmezgine, sent volunteers to aid in the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents in the path of the fire.
“The ZAKA hotline received dozens of calls for help in evacuating and assisting local residents,” said Outmezgine.
“When this task was completed, the volunteers then gave backup support to the firefighting crews, identifying and dousing areas with water to ensure that the flames would not reignite in the fierce winds.
“It was a miracle that no one was seriously hurt,” Outmezgine continued. “Entire streets were in flames,” he said.
“The residents managed to escape before the flames took hold. During the course of the day, the ZAKA operations room received dozens of calls from residents asking for help, and we were able to offer a swift response.
“Later in the day, we received a call for help about an elderly couple who lived in the worst-hit area, but had not made contact. Our volunteers immediately went to their apartment building and were able to evacuate them to safe ground.”
Noting the trauma the Carmel Forest fire caused in 2011 when 44 people lost their lives, ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav said the emergency aid unit left nothing to chance.
“Sadly, we have strong memories of the [Mount] Carmel forest fire,” he said. “We made the decision to send in our special units to assist in the immediate evacuation of the residents in order to prevent a similar tragedy. The emergency and firefighting forces are working with the utmost professionalism.”
In Beit Meir, the Environmental Protection Ministry said on Saturday afternoon that a professional team had been working since the morning to safely remove asbestos hazards plaguing homes damaged by the fires.
During the first stage of the cleanup operation, workers marked all sites that contained burned asbestos and immediately began the process of encapsulating the material.
By afternoon, the process had already been completed at eight different sites, using special equipment and clothing, as asbestos in such a state is carcinogenic to man, the ministry said.
The last phase of the work in Beit Meir will involve removing the asbestos to hazardous waste sites.
“The Environmental Protection Ministry is working tirelessly to allow residents to return to their homes as soon as possible, without exposing them to health dangers,” it said.
The Haifa Municipality announced on Saturday evening that schools throughout the city would hold classes as usual on Sunday.
However, the municipality said that pupils from two schools in the Romema neighborhood that were damaged by the fire would be transferred to other schools in the city.
Romema school pupils would be transferred to the Yavniel School in Kiryat Eliezer until Tuesday and kindergarteners from Romema Flower Kindergarten would be transferred on Sunday to Gan Yarden.
These schools would provide increased psychological staff and support, the municipality noted.
The University of Haifa announced on Saturday night that classes would resume as scheduled on its campus, which was evacuated Thursday due to the threat of the fires. All exams are to proceed as scheduled, with the exception of exams in the international program.
The university added that all students residing in the campus dorms in the Carmel neighborhood were able to return to their rooms Saturday night. However, students residing in the Romema dormitories would be unable to return to their rooms due to safety concerns.
The university said that any student who was unable to find a place to sleep on Saturday night could call a 24-hour hotline for assistance.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Channel 2 news that the Fire and Rescue Authority called on the Education Ministry to cancel all school trips to wooded areas for the remainder of the week.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with ministry staff in Haifa Saturday night and ordered them to work quickly with those residents who suffered property damage in the fires. The ministry assessed the property damage in Haifa at NIS 500m. A decision was made to immediately provide a grant of some NIS 2,000 for the hundreds of families in Haifa who suffered damage to their apartments.
“Don’t let them drown in paperwork, don’t harass them for no reason,” Israel Radio reported Kahlon as telling the staff.
Lidar Gravé-Lazi and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.