Haifa (Israel) (AFP) – Raging bushfires forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from parts of Israel’s third city Haifa on Thursday as firefighters struggled to control blazes across the country.
Some residents were trapped in their homes as the army called up reservists to help cope with a third day of fires which authorities speculated could have been started deliberately.
Haifa municipality spokeswoman Or Doron told AFP that 50,000 of the city’s roughly 250,000 residents had been evacuated.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said residents in eight neighbourhoods had been told to leave due to six separate fires, with four evacuation centres set up.
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”.
– Streets largely deserted –
“The fire was up over the skyscrapers. It came up to 20 stories high.”
Hame said she thought the fire was “much more dangerous” than a blaze in 2010 in Haifa that killed 44 people — the deadliest in Israeli history.
Around 30 people were hospitalised with mild injuries, according to the city’s Ramban Hospital. Haifa University was evacuated as a precautionary measure.
A number of countries made immediate pledges of support including planes, as meteorologists said conditions meant fires were likely to continue for the coming days.
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 the Romema neighbourhood every few minutes, trying to keep the flames from spreading to a nearby gas station.
The streets were largely empty, with remaining residents leaving by foot or car, some holding surgical masks to their faces.
Dozens of soldiers, police, medics and firefighters were huddled in an impromptu command centre in a nearby parking lot.
Daher said a number of residents remained stuck in their homes.
Amit, a 27-year-old from a nearby neighbourhood, was volunteering with firefighters to help calm the blaze.
“There were places that needed help, we went and put out some fires,” he said.
The emergency prompted a growing list of countries to send help, including firefighting aircraft. They included Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Turkey.
– Arson suspected –
Russian President Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Moscow “would immediately send two giant Beriev be-200 firefighting aircraft,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
The 2010 fire required the assistance of planes and personnel from more than 16 countries to put out.
Israel has been hit by a spate of bushfires in recent days across the country that officials attribute to an unusually dry autumn and strong winds.
Elsewhere, fires were raging in two areas on the outskirts of Jerusalem as well as near the Jewish settlement of Talmon in the occupied West Bank, police said.
Noah Wolfson, head of the Meteo-Tech meteorology website, said the conditions were perfect for fires to be sparked — whether by accident or on purpose.
“This November is extremely dry. So far we didn’t have any rain,” he said.
“The extreme dryness — relative humidity below 10 percent — 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, with winds due to slow somewhat but no rain expected until early next week.
Speculation in Israel quickly turned to the source of the fires.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told army radio that around half of the recent fires had been started deliberately.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the far-right Jewish Home party appeared to blame the arson on members the country’s Arab minority.
“Only those to whom the land doesn’t belong are able to burn it,” he said on Twitter in Hebrew.