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Israel's worst forest fire rages on

Firefighters try to extinguish the flames in Tirat Hacarmel in northern Israel on Friday. Crews and equipment from around the world are helping to battle Israel’s worst fire ever.

Associated Press

Firefighters try to extinguish the flames in Tirat Hacarmel in northern Israel on Friday. Crews and equipment from around the world are helping to battle Israel’s worst fire ever.

JERUSALEM — The worst fire in Israel's history showed little sign of abating Friday after two days of the unchecked blaze had killed 41 people, consumed more than 7,000 acres and nipped at neighborhoods in the northern city of Haifa, Israel's third-largest.

The fire had also destroyed a large chunk of the Carmel Forest, one of Israel's natural treasures and a popular tourist and vacation destination, known as Little Switzerland because of its beauty.

By Friday, the flames had engulfed several kibbutzim and were racing down hills toward Israel's heavily traveled coastal highway. At least 15,000 residents were evacuated.

Anguished families began burying the dead — most of them prison guards who perished Thursday when the blaze engulfed a bus that was transporting them to evacuate a prison. Fewer than half were identified by late Friday because bodies were burned beyond recognition.

There were suspicions of arson. Police said small brush fires that broke out Friday appeared to have been deliberately set, though police Chief David Cohen said it was possible the main fire erupted because of carelessness.

This winter has been one of the hottest and driest on record. Jerusalem rabbis this week held a special prayer for rain at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.

Fires this year ravaged parts of the disputed Golan Heights and charred nature preserves on Jerusalem's outskirts. Israel used its entire 200-ton stock of fire-retarding chemicals battling those outbreaks, so it had none on hand when the latest fire erupted. The country of 7 million has only 1,500 firefighters.

"Our firefighting measures cannot provide an answer to forest fires of this magnitude, especially in the face of such winds. We do not have such equipment," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday.

Netanyahu thanked the many nations that stepped in to help Israel, saying the "one bright spot" in the calamity was "the solidarity of the peoples of the world with the people of Israel."

President Barack Obama discussed the fire and expressed his condolences for the loss of life in a telephone call to Netanyahu from Air Force One after it departed from Afghanistan, where Obama made an unannounced holiday visit to U.S. troops.

The U.S. is sending firefighters and supplies to Israel. Nancy Lindborg, an official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said a three-person team of firefighting experts is on its way to Israel. At Israel's request, the United States is sending several tons of fire retardant and thousands of gallons of foam. It is also trying to fulfill Israel's request for more aircraft.

The fire has brought international support at a time when Israel has felt isolated diplomatically. Turkey, which has had a strained relationship with Israel since Israeli troops seized a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in May, sent two planes. Britain, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Russia and Jordan also sent help. Turkey and Greece set aside their political differences and flew sorties together to douse the flames. The Palestinian Authority, which recently cut off U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Netanyahu government, also dispatched firefighters and trucks.

Information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post was used in this report.

Israel's worst forest fire rages on 12/03/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:26pm]
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