Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers fought yesterday to control a massive forest fire that has killed at least 41 people, as global help poured in to battle the biggest inferno in the country’s history.
As high winds drove the blaze toward the port city of Haifa, police and medical officials warned the number of dead could still rise.
“As of this morning, we have recovered 41 bodies and there are still three people missing,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, adding there were 16 people injured, including three seriously hurt and one in critical condition.
Rosenfeld said 15,000 people had been evacuated as the fire incinerated more than 4,000 hectares of land and reached the southern part of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city with a population of 265,000.
Police and rescue workers confirmed most of the dead were prison guards on board a bus, who had been trying to evacuate prisoners from a facility in the forest.
“The bus tried to turn around and some tried to get away but they were caught by the fire from two different directions,” Rosenfeld said.
“We still haven’t searched areas like Beit Oren [kibbutz] which were very badly burned so we are not sure what we are going to find, and the toll may still rise,” he added.
As thousands of firefighters, police and army troops tried to tame the blaze, offers of international help poured in, with more than a dozen countries pledging to send firefighting planes, helicopters and personnel to help.
By early yesterday, five Greek planes, a Bulgarian craft with 100 firefighters, and a Cypriot plane and helicopter and a British helicopter were in Israel, a military spokesman said. A second British helicopter was due to arrive shortly.
The foreign ministry said it had also received pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Britain, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey.
Visiting the scene late on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the blaze as “a fire on an international scale.”
He was expected to convene an emergency session of the cabinet in Tel Aviv on Friday morning to discuss the tragedy.
Dramatic footage showed flames rushing across the forest floor, engulfing trees and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.
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