40 Dead as Fire Ravages Carmel

Fatalities were Prison Service cadets trapped aboard bus; PM declares day of mourning; Israel asks several countries for emergency aid; 12,000 people evacuated from their homes; Firefighters still tackling blaze.

Forty cadets in the Israel Prison Service officer course died yesterday in the sweeping fire that ravaged through the Carmel region in the north. The cadets were en route by bus to assist in the evacuation of Damon Prison.

A total of 12,000 people were reportedly evacuated from their homes in the north yesterday due to the enormous fire.

Carmel fire, bus - Yaron Kaminsky - Dec. 2, 2010
Yaron Kaminsky

An initial investigation revealed that a burning tree trunk fell into the path of the bus transporting the cadets, trapping the vehicle, which subsequently went up in flames.

As of last night, 22 of the deceased had been identified, while 20 were considered missing. Another seven people were rescued, reportedly in critical condition, and evacuated to Haifa-area hospitals.

The fire, which appears to have been ignited in an unauthorized garbage dump near the Druze village of Isfiya, continued to spread late last night.

A spokesperson for the Haifa fire department said firefighters had "lost control of the blaze," adding "there is not enough extinguishing material in the state of Israel to overtake the fire."

Israel issued urgent appeals yesterday to a number of countries for assistance in battling the blaze. The diplomatic-security cabinet will convene today for an emergency meeting.

Authorities ordered thousands of residents to leave their homes due to the fire. Isfiya and Kibbutz Beit Oren, where dozens of houses burned to the ground, were the first to be evacuated. The northern towns of Ein Hod, Ein Hud and Nir Etzion were also evacuated. In addition, 5,000 residents of Tirat Carmel also left their homes.

The fire prompted authorities to clear inmates from the Damon prison, many of them Palestinians.

Fire officials said the blaze, which torched some 1,600 acres (650 hectares ), remained out of control after nightfall.

Haifa University, at the edge of the stricken Carmel nature preserve, was evacuated, the university said in a statement.

A psychiatric hospital in the area was also evacuated, while a nature resort in the middle of the forest sent all of its guests home.

"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday.

He added that the government was using all means at its disposal to contain the blaze. Sources in the Foreign Ministry said he appealed to Cyprus, Italy, Russia and Greece to provide assistance. Netanyahu's office said Greece, Spain and Cyprus agreed to send over firefighting helicopters. (See story, Page A2 )

After nightfall, the prime minister flew over the scene of the fire to inspect the damage. At the firefighters' command post, Netanyahu said the blaze was of international proportions and that the arrival of equipment from abroad today could be decisive, but that they would not be able to work at night.

The fire broke out around midday yesterday and spread quickly, fanned by uncharacteristic hot and dry conditions for this time of year. The country experienced an exceptionally hot summer and has seen little rain during the normally wet autumn and winter season.

The fire destroyed one of Israel's few large forests, made up of natural growth and planted areas - a popular spot for camping, hiking and picnics. A nature reserve provided a refuge for dozens of species of wildlife. Forestry workers also made efforts to evacuate animals from the inferno.