An estimated 10,000-plus dunams of Golan Heights grasses, river vegetation and natural forest went up in flames on Monday in the latest of a spate of blazes to scorch the area. Dozens of firefighters, park employees, soldiers, cowboys and local workers took several hours to put the wildfire out.

It was the third fire in the area in a month.

Authorities believe the blaze, which began at about 10 A.M., may have been caused by metal thieves in the area of Eliad Junction. It began on the western bank of the El-Al Stream and jumped to the eastern bank.

Three water bomber planes were used to help quell the flames, in addition to truck-mounted water tanks and water canisters carried by park rangers on their backs.

"It's a disaster," said Raz Amir, head of the Golan area for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. "We saw animals burned before our eyes. The damage to the reserve is enormous; groves that were decades old were destroyed. It will take many years before the riverside habitats recover. It's a heavy blow. You have to realize that every tree that grows here in the river for decades created an entire ecological system around it."

Parks officials said they feared the Griffon Vultures would not return to nest at the stream this year.

"The white waterfall turned black," one Parks employee said last night, in a reference to the white and black waterfalls the El-Al is known for.

"Unlike fires in open areas, which spread quickly, fires in the riverbed burn for several hours in the same place because of the dense vegetation and the topography, which creates a kind of wind tunnel," Amir explained. "The fire was tremendous, with flames leaping about 20 meters in the air, at tremendous temperatures. The fire destroyed entire stands of trees, with grapevines, fig trees, poplars amd willows. The damage is enormous, I hope we'll be able to salvage something."

The Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights are prone to fires in the summer, but this past summer was particularly difficult. Monday's fire came just 10 days after one that consumed about 13,000 dunam of vegetation, while dozens of smaller fires during the summer damaged tens of thousands of dunams of natural forest, pasture land and grasses.