Sunday, December 6th, 2020
  
 

Wildfires blamed on ‘arson terror’

Israeli firefighters continued their efforts to quell wildfires in Haifa on Thursday, with the blaze entering its third day after breaking out near Jerusalem on Tuesday. Some 30 people suffering from mild injuries have been hospitalised. According to Haifa municipality spokeswoman Or Doron, some 50,000 of the city’s 250,000 residents have been evacuated as a result of the blazes, which are likely to continue until the end of the week due to the dry and windy weather. Israel has called up hundreds of military reservists to help with the response. Two planes arrived from Russia on Thursday to help the relief effort. Italy, Greece, Croatia and Turkey have also offered assistance.

Israeli firefighters work to extinguish a fire in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Picture: AFP/Jack Guez

TENS of thousands of Israelis have fled raging bushfires in the northern city of Haifa, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said any proof of arson would be treated as “terror.”

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan said up to half of a spate of fires in recent days had been “arson terror,” while another minister appeared to point the finger at the country’s Arab minority — drawing fierce rebukes from Arab leaders.

Some residents were trapped in their homes as the army called up reservists to support firefighters struggling to cope with a third day of blazes.

Fires blaze in Israel, which leaders blame on ‘arson terror’. Picture: AFP/Jack GuezSource:AFP

Thousands of Israelis fled their homes on the outskirts of Haifa as fires raged. Picture: AFP/Jack GuezSource:AFP

Israelis flee their homes as a fire rages on in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Picture: AFP/Jack GuezSource:AFP

Haifa mayor Yona Yahav said 60,000 of the city’s roughly 250,000 residents had been evacuated, calling the scale “unprecedented.”

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said residents in eight Haifa neighbourhoods had been told to leave due to six separate fires.

Residents spoke of a desperate rush to get elderly residents out.

“The fire is out of control and is spreading from one house to the other,” the rescue services chief in the Carmel neighbourhood, Naftali Rottenberg, told public radio. “Sometimes we are taking residents out against their will.”

Yael Hame, a Haifa resident who fled her house, said it was “very frightening”.

“The fire was up over the skyscrapers. It came up to 20 storeys high.”

Hame said she thought the fires were “much more dangerous” than a blaze in 2010 in Haifa that killed 44 people — the deadliest in Israeli history.

Around 65 people were hospitalised with mild injuries, according to the Magen David Adom medical service.

Israeli firefighters help extinguish a fire engulfing homes in the Israeli port city of Haifa. Picture: AFP/Jack GuezSource:AFP

A number of residents remained stuck in their homes, a fire service spokesman said.

Fires also raged in two areas on the outskirts of Jerusalem as well as near the Jewish settlement of Talmon in the occupied West Bank, police said, with Mr Netanyahu saying there were 15 fire sites in total.

A number of countries made immediate pledges of support including planes.

An Israeli firefighter plane helps extinguish a fire in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Picture: AFP/ Jack GuezSource:AFP

ARSON SUSPECTED AS FIRES RAGE

Speculation in Israel quickly turned to the source of the fires. Noah Wolfson, head of the Meteo-Tech meteorology website, said the dry autumn and strong winds meant conditions were perfect for fires to spread — whether sparked by accident or on purpose.

“The extreme dryness — relative humidity below 10 per cent — coupled with very strong winds, enhance and encourage any small fire to expand and be horrendous,” he said.

The forecast for the coming days was not optimistic, he added, with winds due to slow somewhat but no rain expected until early next week.

Smoke billows from a house as a fire rages in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Picture: AFP/Ahmad GharabliSource:AFP

Erdan told a press conference up to half of the recent fires had been started deliberately, labelling it “arson terror.”

“It is clear that many fires started as deliberate arson,” he said. Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the far-right Jewish Home party appeared to blame the alleged arson on members of the country’s Arab minority.

Mr Netanyahu, speaking near the scene of the fires, said authorities had noticed “encouragement to arson” on social media.

“Every fire caused by arson or incitement to arson is terror and will be treated as such,” he told reporters.

A firefighting plane from Greece fights a wildfire in Haifa, Israel. Picture: AP Photo/Ariel SchalitSource:AP

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab block in the Israeli parliament, said in a statement the immediate accusations amounted to “incitement” against Arabs.

He pointed out that many of the fires had disproportionately affected Arab areas, including in Haifa where he is from.

“We have lived in this country for hundreds and thousands of years and not burned it.”

Some Israeli news organisations were labelling the wave of fires an “arson intifada,” alluding to a Palestinian uprising.

THICK SMOKE ENGULFS HAIFA

The extent of the damage will be assessed in the coming days, but for much of the day areas in southern Haifa were engulfed in smoke, the air thick with ash carried by the strong dry winds, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

Planes dropping water and powder swooped over every few minutes, dousing the area in an attempt to manage the flames.

Some residents tried to use their personal hoses to douse their homes, while others packed a few prized possessions into shopping trolleys and rushed to safety.

Dozens of soldiers, police, medics and firefighters were huddled in an impromptu command centre in a nearby parking lot.

Homes were threatened as fires raged in Haifa. Picture: AFP/Jack GuezSource:AFP

Amit, a 27-year-old from a nearby neighbourhood, was helping firefighters to calm the blaze.

“There were places that needed help, we went and put out some fires,” he told AFP.

Guy Catlan, who runs a petrol station in Haifa, said workers turned the power off and were helping firefighters to prevent the flames from reaching the business.

“There is a very large quantity of fuel here,” he said. “It is very dangerous to the entire area, it could be a big catastrophe,” he said, according to ABC News.

The emergency prompted a growing list of countries including Greece, Russia and Turkey to send firefighting aircraft. The 2010 fire required the assistance of planes and personnel from more than 16 countries to put out.

Two Israelis watch as another tries to extinguish a fire with a hose from a rooftop in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Picture: AFP/Jack GuezSource:AFP