Obama Assures Netanyahu Forest Fire Assistance Top U.S. Priority

U.S. is sending a team of expert firefighters and supplies to Israel to help the country contain the worst forest fire in its history.

President Barack Obama discussed Friday the deadly fire with Prime Minister Netanyahu during a telephone call from Air Force One, after his brief visit to Afghanistan.

Over 17,000 Northern residents, including 600 prison inmates, were evacuated from their homes as the largest forest fire in Israeli history raged out of control, devastating hundreds of acres of pine forest before sweeping down the slopes of the Carmel hills towards Haifa, and killing over 42 people.

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House on September 1, 2010. AP

The U.S. president ensured Netanyahu that sending Israel the necessary assistance to combat the flames was a top U.S. priority.

The U.S. is sending a team of expert firefighters and supplies to Israel to help the country contain the worst forest fire in its history, Obama administration officials said Friday.

Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said a three-person U.S. Forest Service team experienced in aerial firefighting was en route to Israel and should arrive during the weekend.

At Israel's request, the U.S. also is sending 45 metric tons of fire retardant and 12,000 liters of foam. The chemicals are used to fight fires from the air and on the ground.

The U.S. also is trying to fulfill Israel's request for aircraft, said Dan Shapiro, a National Security Council official.

"We are prepared to assist with further aircraft resources, in addition to the generous response of other nations, if these aircraft can arrive from the U. S. in time to be effective," American Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham said Friday.

Meanwhile, more than 20 fire-fighting planes from abroad were expected to arrive in Israel, with New York's fire department also agreeing to send a fire-fighting airplane
Obama on Thursday expressed his "deepest condolences" to the families of the victims of the fire, saying that the U.S. was “acting to help our Israeli friends in this time of disaster.”

"The People of Israel have been profoundly moved by the outpouring of support from a number of foreign countries, including in our region,” said a statement Friday from Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C.

“We are especially grateful to President Obama for his expression of support. We are ready to begin the task of rebuilding. The State of Israel has surmounted many challenges in its short history. Together with our friends worldwide, we will overcome this too."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday also paid tribute to nations which had provided Israel with resources to battle the blaze.

"We are moving as quickly as we can to provide this assistance, and are heartened by similar efforts to contribute resources from Israel’s other friends around the world,” Clinton said. “My hope is that the fires are extinguished soon. The hearts of the people of the United States go out to the people of Israel, and we stand with them at this difficult time.”