'We can't say that fire in the North is under control'
Police commissioner says blaze may be contained by Saturday afternoon; death toll reaches 42; over 17,000 Northern residents have been evacuated from their homes.
"We can't say that the fire is under control," Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen told reporters on Friday evening as the largest wildfire in Israeli history continued to burn in the Carmel hills south of Haifa.
Cohen added that despite the assistance received and the cooperation amongst various organizations, the fire is continuing to spread in several locations.
"The event has not yet ended and even now there are some locations where the fire has not been taken care of," Cohen said. "Perhaps we will be able to say [that the fire is under control] by tomorrow afternoon. The strategic plan of the police is still to save lives and to bring the event to an end as quickly as possible."
Cohen also reported that incidents of arson had occurred in several locations on Friday and that police were taking care of the situation.
As fire fighters from at home and abroad fought Friday to contain the wildfire, police warned local residents who had returned to their homes in the north that they would evacuate them by force. The blaze has been searing its way through a large area of northern Israel since Thursday morning, spreading as far the moshav of Nir Etzion by Friday afternoon.
Over 17,000 Northern 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 hills towards Haifa, Israel's third largest city.
View Massive wildfire rages in northern Israel in a larger map
Fire-fighting aircraft from around the world landed in Israel on Friday to aid in the battle against the flames.
The death toll from the blaze reached 42 on Friday, most from an incident involving a bus carrying members of a Prison Service guards' course who were heading to the Damon jail to help evacuate inmates there.
When a fallen tree blocked a road, their bus was trapped in the flames, killing as many as 36 passengers, as well as others who had attempted to rescue them.
By mid-evening Thursday, fire chiefs admitted that they had no 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 further to the coastal Highway 2, forcing police to close one of Israel's busiest roads between Zichron Yaakov and Haifa.
The blaze advanced toward moshav Nir Etzion, south of Haifa, around noon on Friday. Several residents returned to the moshav overnight after police ordered its evacuation on Thursday.
Police officials are now calling those residents to vacate their homes again, fearing the approaching flames could pose a serious risk to their lives.
Beit Oren, which was evacuated on Thursday, as well, is another place to which residents have apparently been returning without police permission, leading security officials to evacuate them by force, if necessary.