Fires Across Israel Come Under Control; Thousands Evacuated

70-year-man dies of heat stroke ■ Netanyahu ordered looking into foreign assistance ■ Heat wave expected to continue well into Friday

Fire spreads throughout southern Mount Hebron in the West Bank, May 23, 2019.

Some 3,500 people have been evacuated from their homes throughout central Israel on Thursday due to fires that started as a result of a heavy heat wave and were later brought under control.

Emergency forces said that even after firefighter teams put out all major fires, some central communities will remain inaccessible for 24 hours, after which residents will gradually return to their homes.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the National Security Council, the Foreign Ministry and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to act to ensure international aerial assistance in putting out the flames.

Firefighting teams trying to put out the flames in the central city of Elad, May 23, 2019.
Omer Shapira

Fire and Rescue service teams have estimated that the vast part of the fires were a result of negligence by people celebrating the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Wednesday night, who hadn't completely put out the traditional bonfires.

At least 16 homes caught fire in Kibbutz Harel and Mevo Modi'in, both north-west of Jerusalem, and their residents were evacuated. 

The police also announced the full evacuation of Moshav Tarum, near the city Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Emergency forces have been ordered to prepare to evacuate thousands more.

Meanwhile, a 70-year-old man died of heat stroke in the central city of Or Yehuda.

A baby and his two siblings were rescued from an apartment that caught fire in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit and were taken to hospital after sustaining injuries as a result of smoke inhalation. At least 11 people were injured across the country due to smoke inhalation. 

The fire in Mevo Modi'in spread toward the Mitkan Adam military base and Moshav Shilat, where teams were fighting to subdue the flames.

Lag B'Omer bonfire, Jerusalem, Israel, May 22, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

In Beit Shemesh, firefighters were called to contain four different fires. Authorities have also used aircraft to drop water onto the flames from above. 

In Jerusalem, a forest near the Uzi Narkiss Bridge caught on fire and roads leading to the city were blocked due to heavy smoke.

Furthermore, a fire broke out in Ben Shemen Forest, prompting authorities to close Route 443 in both directions. 

A fire in the West Bank settlement of Beit Haggai was put out, and about 30 families that had been evacuated were allowed to return to their homes. Residents were also evacuated from Moshav Tifrach, a religious southern community, as weeds burned. In Moshav Yachini, a fire broke out in wheat fields.

Burnt house in Mevo Modi'im, Israel, May 23, 2019.

Fires also started in Hof Ashkelon Regional Council in southern Israel, near the Gaza border and were later put out. Additionally, investigators determined that incendiary balloons launched from the Gaza Strip caused two fires in the Eshkol Regional Council.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan consulted with senior officials with Israel's police, Fire and Rescue Services and other emergency forces to assess the firefighting efforts across the country. He instructed to prepare for international aerial assistance should the fires continue to spread.

Erdan also stressed that lifesaving precedes the saving of property, and instructed firefighting forces to act accordingly, adding that a state of emergency might be declared.

The heat wave comes during the holiday of Lag B'Omer, throughout which usually hold bonfires that affect the dispersal of pollution. Pollution concentrations are up 11 times normal rates.

The heat wave is expected to last on Friday, and temperatures are even expected to rise. A significant relief in the heat is expected on Saturday, when temperatures are slated to drop by 10 to 13 degrees. 

In Tel Aviv temperatures reached up to 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit), while 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) were measured in the northern city of Haifa and in the southern city of Ashkelon temperatures rose up to 43 degrees Celsius (109.4 Fahrenheit).