Emergency Forces Battle Wildfires for Second Day as Heatwave Intensifies

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Fire in Kibbutz Harel, Israel, May 23, 2019.
Fire in Kibbutz Harel, Israel, May 23, 2019. Credit: AP

Emergency forces continued to put out wildfires across Israel on Friday, which burned dozens of homes and destroyed vast swaths of land amid an intense heatwave.

According to emergency services, many of the fires were apparently sparked on Thursday as a result of negligence by people celebrating the Jewish bonfire holiday of Lag B'Omer, combined with the heatwave.

Fire and rescue services are contending with several conflagrations near Jerusalem and in northern Israel, as well as a large factory fire in the coastal city of Ashdod.

Firefighting jets from Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Croatia and Italy were sent to Israel for backup. Firefighting forces said they are using drones for observation and identification of fires.

Meanwhile, the Israeli police said it detained three Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem suspected of three separate incidents of attempted arson.

A 19-year-old and a 15-year-old are suspected of attempting to start a fire in Jerusalem's Mount Scopus area, and the third suspect, in his 30s, is said to have been involved in arson at Kidron Valley, near the Old City. Police assess the suspects had not operated together.

Some 3,500 people were evacuated from their homes in Mavo Modi'im community in Central Israel on Thursday. Forty out of the 50 homes there burned, as well as 15% of the land area in Ben Shemen forest.

Highway 443 has been shut down in both directions in the fire's vicinity. The Jewish National Fund, which owns many forests in Israel, is currently cutting down trees in order to create firebreaks and protect neighboring communities in the area. 

On Thursday, forces extinguished some 800 fires.  

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

In Tel Aviv temperatures reached up to 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, 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).    

The heat wave is anticipated to last until Saturday, when temperatures are expected to drop by 10 to 13 degrees.