A huge brushfire ravaged the Gamla nature reserve in the Golan Heights yesterday, burning thousands of dunams of shrubbery and endangering the lives of several eagle chicks.

"The entire reserve has been burned," the reserve's ecologist Yael Horesh said yesterday.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority director general, Eli Amitai, said the Gamla reserve could take years to recover from the damage.

Authorities believe the blaze, which broke out at Gamla in the early hours yesterday morning, was started by an IDF tank, whose metal tracks gave off sparks when moving over rocks. Strong winds quickly fanned the fire, which in a few hours destroyed much of the park's vegetation and threatened to destroy incubation cages where rare eagle chicks were being reared.

Horesh and other park rangers raced to rescue the eagle chicks, aged one and two years, which are being kept in an acclimatization cage prior to being released into the wild at the age of three.

"The fire advanced toward the cage and we feared for their fate," Horesh said after the chicks were moved to safety. At one point they considered opening the cage and setting the eagles free prematurely, in the hope of saving their lives.

"We knew they had little chance of surviving if we let them out. They might have leaped into the flames, or hesitated to fly out of the cage," she said.

Eventually the park rangers managed to load the cage onto a vehicle just as the shout came over the radio: "Get out of there, the fire has reached you."

"The fire was chasing us as we sped out of the reserve," Horesh said. The flames rapidly reached the alternative cage the eagles had been moved to and they had to be evacuated again.

The eagle chicks are vital for reintroducing raptors to the region, whose eagle population has become all but extinct. The last inhabited eagle's nest in the Gamla reserve was abandoned by the parent eagles on Tuesday and the chick that had remained behind died before the fire broke out.

The Parks Authority remains concerned over the long-term impact of the fire on eagle populations in the area, an important nesting site.

Despite efforts over several hours by fire crews, soldiers and park rangers to control the flames, the fire quickly spread toward the Dalya and Yehudia streams. The army evacuated all civilians from the area, which is popular with hikers. Dozens of Parks Authority people and firefighters, accompanied by aircrafts, soldiers and farmers from the area, battled the flames.

Ancient Gamla was gravely damaged, as were the reserve's fauna and flora. Several raptors' nests were also burned, including an eagle owl's nest and an Egyptian vulture's nest in which two chicks had hatched a few days ago. A brooding vulture couple abandoned its nest with eggs in it.

The Parks Authority plans to reopen the site within the next few days, Amitai said. He added that entrance fees would be waived in the hope of encouraging visitors and raising awareness of the need to repair the damage.