Deaths mourned as Carmel forest fire brought under control

The Carmel forest fire (photo: Ben King Scott)

The Carmel forest fire (photo: Ben King Scott)

More than 17,000 people have been allowed back to their homes in the north of Israel after firefighters said that the worst of the blaze in the Carmel mountains region had been brought under control.

The fire, which investigators have traced back to two teenage boys now being held by police, has devastated 5,000 hectares of forest.

Forty-two people died as a result of the fire including the head of the Haifa police department and a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter who was killed during the attempt to rescue prison-guards trapped on a burning bus.

Officials said the blaze, which began on Thursday afternoon, was the worst such disaster in Israel’s history.

At the worst point it had spread across a 50 square kilometer area of the Carmel region, coming perilously close to Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.

Academics Dr Lea Wittenberg and Dr Dan Melkinson of the University of Haifa said that in the past 30 years northern Israel had suffered just nine large forest fires.

Those fires had affected a total of 3,000 hectares of forest, less than the damage done in the past three days. But the pair said that because of the unseasonably dry weather and strong winds "nothing would have been able to stop this great fire from reaching the proportions that it did.

“With no rainfall for the past eight months, the forest became extremely dry, and along with the strong winds, the present fire grew so wild.”

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, thanked the international community for sending firefighting equipment to help control the spread.

Britain was among the first countries which responded to the appeal for help, immediately sending two RAF helicopters based in Cyprus to help extinguish the flames.

In a phone conversation with Mr Netanyahu Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his "sincere condolences and great sympathies for the tragic loss of life.”

Foreign Secretary William Hague also sent condolences on behalf of the British government to those who had lost family members.

He said: “This tragedy is all the more sad as it comes as the Jewish community around the world celebrates Chanucah, a time of hope and joy.

“The UK will continue to do whatever it can to help.”

    Last updated: 9:56am, December 6 2010