A fire fighting aircraft drops flame retardant over a forest fire on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
A fire fighting aircraft drops flame retardant over a forest fire on the outskirts of Jerusalem, June 26, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Arson is suspected in the two blazes raging near Jerusalem, which consumed 300 dunams of natural woodland and had four people treated for smoke inhalation.

The fires erupted at two main entrance points to Jerusalem. The first broke out among the ruins of Lifta at the capital city's north and spread to the Arazim Valley near the suburb of Mevasseret Zion.

The second fire broke out at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha.

Jerusalem police and firefighters say they suspect arson was behind both fires.

"Fire doesn't break out for no reason," said Fire and Rescue Service Commissioner Shahar Ayalon. "It is either malicious or negligent and we have grave concerns it was arson."

The firefighting services took no chances after the fire broke out yesterday, one week after the State Comptroller's Office released a scathing report on the failure of authorities to properly respond to the 2010 Carmel fire, in which 44 people were killed.

Firefighters from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh were the first to arrive on the scenes when the fires broke out at about 1 P.M. But the fires quickly spread, and at the height of the fires there were a total of 48 firefighting teams from all over the country at both scenes, as well as four Jewish National Fund fire trucks and six fire-fighting aircraft.

Police and the Magen David Adom rescue service established a joint command post in Mevasseret Zion.

Part of the kibbutz hotel and its outdoor pool were evacuated due to heavy smoke. A number of families in lower Motza, located near Route 1, were also evacuated from their homes. Police and firefighters had initially planned to evacuate hundreds of residents of Mevasseret, but the fire was brought under control before the evacuation was deemed necessary.

At about 2 P.M., parts of Route 1, the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, were closed due to heavy smoke and flames near the road. The road was closed for a number of hours, causing major traffic tie-ups.

Some drivers on the road abandoned their vehicles, fearing the flames would reach them.

Two storage structures were burned in lower Motza, along with agricultural fields. The historic Yellin House in the area was saved from fire but damaged by fire retardants.

About 300 dunams of natural woodlands went up in flames yesterday, including 200 dunams at the Einot Telem National Park. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the JNF will be assessing the extent of the damage in the coming days to determine steps to rehabilitate the area. Amir Balaban, of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said, "I hope the deer and the other animals had a place to flee to," adding that he had "no doubt that smaller mammals had died in the fire."

By 4:30 P.M., the fire was brought under control and Route 1 was reopened. A number of teams were to remain on duty into the night.

Jerusalem fire chief Col. Shmuel Friedman said the wind fanned the flames to such an extent yesterday that "at one point the fire got away from us." Friedman said they were afraid the wind would drive the fire into Jerusalem, but "luckily there was moisture in the air that worked in our favor. It took a little time but then reinforcements arrived from the center of the country and the planes that saved the situation," he said.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said he was satisfied with the response and that it indicated lessons had been learned from the botched response to the Carmel fire.

There have been some 300 arson attempts around the capital over the past month, primarily north and south of the city.