Story Highlights

  • Fire chiefs admit 'losing control'
  • Foreign firefighting aircraft expect to reach Israel early Friday
  • Blaze believed to have started in illegal landfill

Mass evacuations continued across northern Israel Friday morning as dry easterly winds fanned a massive brushfire towards the city of Haifa.

Over 17,000 residents, including 600 prison inmates, were evacuated as the blaze raged out of control, devastating hundreds of acres of pine forest before sweeping down the slopes of the Carmel plateau towards Israel's third largest city.

By mid-evening Thursday, fire chiefs had admitted publicly to losing control of the fire, believed to have started in an illegal landfill site.

As the flames neared the city limits, residents of Denya, an affluent district of Haifa – a busy port city and the north's economic heartland – were moved to safety.

At around 4:00 A.M., local time, firefighters warned of the possibility the blaze would reach Highway 4, a major traffic artery linking the north with Tel Aviv, with those predictions proving true later in the morning.

At around 10:30 A.M. on Friday morning the fire had swept its way to the farther coastal Highway 2, forcing police to close one of Israel's busiest roads between Zichron Yaakov and Haifa.

A number of neighboring countries dispatched firefighting aircraft to help tackle the blaze, the first of which were expected to reach Israel at around 7:00 A.M.

Earlier, 40 were killed when a bus carrying prison service trainees to assist in the evacuation was engulfed by fire after a falling tree blocked its path.

Two firefighters and a policeman were also among the dead. Elsewhere, at least two more fire crew were reported missing, while the Haifa district police chief was among the injured.

Across the region, traffic crawled to a standstill, with black smoke and flames visible for miles around.

The blaze broke out shortly before lunchtime and spread rapidly across the tinder-dry Carmel countryside, left parched after the hottest November in Israel in 60 years.

One of the first residential areas to be evacuated was Kibbutz Beit Oren, where all 400 residents reached safety before the entire collective farm was razed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said evacuations would continue and that authorities would take no risks where civilian lives were in danger.

"Evacuations will be conducted as needed, with sufficient advance warning. We do not want any more injuries," said Netanyahu, who called an emergency cabinet meeting for Friday morning.

As the fire raged on, the town Isfiyeh, a center for Israel's Druze community, much of which is concentrated in the Carmel mountains, was next to be evacuated.

Police also evacuated prisoners from Prison 6 and Carmel Prison, as well as students in Haifa University dormitories, who were transferred to a nearby high school.

Some 200 patients from the Tirat Hacarmel psychiatric hospital were also evacuated.