Haifa, Dec. 2 – Forty people have been killed as the worst forest fire in Israel’s history swept through the forests of Mount Carmel near Haifa.
The unprecedented disaster plunged Israel into mourning on the first day of the Chanukah festival.
Most of the dead were prison guards in the process of evacuating inmates from a prison in the path of the fire. Their bus was overtaken by fast-moving flames. The head of the Haifa Police Department, Deputy Commander Ahuva Tomer was critically injured in the fire.
Israel appealed for Cyprus, Italy, Russia and Greece to send firefighting planes to quell the flames which continued to rage. Spain was the first to respond, promising to send four firefighting planes to help Israel battle the inferno.
"Today, our hearts are in Haifa, with the firefighters that with incredible courage are battling the flames; some of them have been injured, along with residents of the area." said President Shimon Peres. "We are praying for a miracle. We are praying for their safety. We are praying for the fire to end." Magen David Adom Director General, Eli Bin called the fire the most severe such event in the country’s history.
Israel has been in the grip of a severe drought. Rains which normally come in November after the hot summer months failed to materialize this year. Israeli news outlets reported that the fire, aided by strong winds, has already burned at least 7,000 dunams (about 1,730 acres) of natural forest.
The University of Haifa was evacuated as a precaution as were residents of western neighborhoods, two prisons and a psychiatric hospital and at least two nearby villages.