Fire Chief: We Find Ourselves in Best Situation Since Start of Carmel Blaze

Fire still burning in four sites in Carmel; U.S. supertanker arrives in Israel to take part in firefighting effort.

Fire officials were cautiously optimistic as crews continued to battle flames raging in the massive brushfire still burning across the Carmel Mountains in the predawn hours of Sunday morning.

Carmel fire- David Bachar- Dec. 4, 2010
David Bachar

"We find ourselves in the best situation since the fire started," Shimon Romah, the head of the Fire and Rescue Services, told Army Radio around 3 a.m. on Sunday.

Romah said that firefighters had overnight been able to preserve the efforts they had made throughout the day on Saturday.

Romah added, however, that winds were intensifying.

There had been fear that the situation could take a negative turn overnight.

The fire, which has been burning since Thursday, has claimed 41 lives and destroyed nearly 50,000 dunams of land in the Carmel region. On Saturday night into Sunday morning, it was still raging in four areas: Har Shokef, Nir Etzion, the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, and Isfiya.

Firefighting crews said on Saturday evening that the fire has weakened, though there was concern that the situation could change overnight due to the inability to use most firefighting aircraft during the hours of darkness.

"Though we are careful using the word 'control', we do see some weakening of the flames," said Boaz Rakia, the spokesperson of the Israeli firefighters association.

On Saturday night, a Boeing 747 supertanker from the United States landed in Israel to join the firefighting effort. The aircraft is capable of carrying 95,000 liters of water and flame retardant liquid.

17,000 Northern residents have thus far been evacuated from their homes as the wildfire has raged out of control in the Carmel hills south of Haifa, Israel's third largest city, since Thursday morning.

After a situation assessment of police and firefighting crews on Saturday, it was decided it was safe to send residents of a few towns back to their homes. The towns cleared for safety were: Kfar Galim, Kibbutz HaHotrim, Megadim, Tirat Hacarmel, and the Denya neighborhood of Haifa.

Authorities are closely monitoring wind directions and are preparing for the possibility that the fire will spread to additional locations. Buses have been moved into to positions that will allow for additional evacuations if necessary.

Police forces arrested Saturday two brothers from the Druze village of Isfiya who are suspected of being responsible for the act of negligence which started the massive fire.

Detectives believe the brothers lit a fire near their home in the western part of Isfiya which spread and ultimately set the entire Carmel ablaze.

Israel Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that the investigation into the fire was continuing.

He said despite foreign firefighters helping to battle the blaze, it was still out of control in tracts of northern Israeli forest.

The death toll from the blaze reached 41 on Friday. Most of the victims had perished in an incident on Thursday involving a bus carrying members of a Prison Service guards' course who were heading to the Damon jail in order to help evacuate inmates.