The ongoing spate of forest fires has completely depleted Israel's stock of airborne fire retardant, Haaretz had learned. The material, released from firefighting planes, is used to stop the spread of forest fires and is imported exclusively from France by the Chim-Nir aviation company. The company can only import it using special permits and financial guarantees from the Firefighting and Rescue Commission.

Recently, the aviation company told the commission that the stock is running low, and that some 100 tons need to be urgently purchased. However, the recent large-scale forest fires, including the blaze at the Gamla nature reserve in the Golan Heights earlier this month, depleted the stock of retardant. Israel had previously run out of retardant in 2006, following forest fires started by Hezbollah missiles during the Second Lebanon War, and had at the time to fly it in from France. As a result, it was recommended to always have a reserve of 160 tons of airborne retardant available. A senior Firefighting and Rescue Commission official said yesterday in response: "It's fine, we're prepared. We'll use foam."

Meanwhile, the firefighting and rescue services in the western Galilee will remain on alert today, after spending yesterday trying to contain several forest fires. The largest one began near moshav Yodfat, where firefighters had difficulty reaching the scene because of the mountainous terrain, and the fire rapidly spread. Two Yodfat residents who tried to assist the firefighters were seriously injured when the ATV they rode on caught fire. The two left the vehicle and escaped on foot through the flames.

Magen David Adom paramedic Yaniv Bakish told Haaretz that the two men were taken by local residents to nearby Kfar Manda, and then taken by MDA teams to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where they were treated for burns.

The Western Galilee firefighting and rescue services said five airplanes took part in containing the fire, along with firefighters and Jewish National Fund teams. Two other fires burned near the village of Dir al-Assad and Beit Jan, decimating dozens of acres of natural forests. No damage to homes or casualties aside from the two Yodfat residents were reported, and there are no suspicions of arson at the moment.

A fire also burned on Mount Tavor, where the JNF said 50 acres of planted forest were damaged; and in the Hula Valley, with riverside undergrowth and natural forests damaged between the Hula nature reserve and the Hula Lake. Firefighting teams from the Golan and Galilee, assisted by JNF and Israel Nature and Parks Authority workers, subdued the fire within hours. "We were on alert since early morning, because of the tough weather conditions forecasted," said Yair Elkayam, spokesman for the Golan-Galilee Firefighting and Rescue Services. "The stations were all given extra firefighters and eight planes were on standby."

Fires burned in the Beit Shean Valley, at one point spreading to the eastern bank of the Jordan River on the Jordanian side of the border.

The heat wave is also causing severe damage to crops, estimated by Dubi Amitai, president of the Israel Farmers' Association, at millions of shekels. "About 20 precent of the season's fruits have ripened before their time because of the heat," Amitai said yesterday. "Israeli farmers are suffering from a severe shortage of foreign workers, which makes picking these thousands of tons of fruit extremely difficult. The government promised to issue work permits to 4,000 guest workers, completing the guest worker limit for 2010 - but has so far failed to live up to its commitment."

Most damage was caused to summer fruits like peaches, plums, grapes and watermelons. "Some 500 tons of fruits were thrown away," Amitai said.

Gabi Kuniel, director of vineyards and orchards at kibbutz Marom Golan, told Haaretz that the heat was damaging apples, kiwis, pears, cherry trees and vines. As the rains this year stopped in February, artificial irrigation began early, and the heat wave brought the water quantities needed to double the normal amount.

The Israeli Cattle Breeders Association said that the heat led to cooling systems being switched into top gear in nearly all dairy barns in the country. The system allows cows to produce milk at a rate close to winter averages. "Israeli cows, who hail from European breeds, are sensitive to heat," said the association's director, Yaakov Becher, "so they eat less and produce less milk - and that's in the summer, when demand for fresh milk products is at its peak."

The heat wave began receding earlier than forecasted yesterday, with cold and moist air entering the coastal area in the late morning. The temperature drop was tempered, however, by strong south-westerly winds, speeding up to 50 kilometers an hour.

Today and throughout the rest of the week temperatures are expected to subside slowly, to lower than usual for the season. Some clouds are expected to enter Israel tonight, and local drizzle may occur in the north tomorrow and over the weekend. Humidity will also drop today, and in general the oppressive heat of recent days will be relieved.