Largest Forest Fire Ever Continues to Burn at Four Major Carmel Hotspots

Senior officials in the fire service tell Haaretz that at least 48 more hours of intense work are needed to bring the fire under control.

After a day of cautious optimism among the firefighters and some success in limiting the scope of the Carmel mountain blaze, by last night strong winds had whipped up the flames again in several locations on the mountain.

"With all due caution, we can say that we are seeing some weakening of the blaze," firefighting commissonership operations officer Boaz Rakia said earlier in the evening. At the same time, he warned that "the firefighting planes can't operate at nighttime, and if the winds change, the flames can simply leap over our defense lines. We are preparing to protect homes and are getting ready to go into the field again during the night, when it is safe enough to do so."

"That little light at the end of the tunnel we're seeing now can turn into something entirely different by morning," Rakia said.

Senior officials in the fire service told Haaretz that at least 48 more hours of intense work would be needed before the fire could be brought under control. Firefighting planes from other countries continued arriving in Israel through the weekend, and sources in the Israel Air Force estimated that by tonight, some 30 airplanes would be involved in battling the blaze. Airplanes and crews have arrived from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, Azerbaijan, France and the United States.

The situation last evening appeared to closely resemble the situation the night before when, after initially wresting control of the blaze, firefighters found the winds had changed and had begun pushing the fire northwards, to Nir Etzion and Ein Hod. This advance was eventually contained before the communities were seriously damaged.

Police yesterday continued their probe into the cause of the largest forest fire in Israeli history, which at latest count had cost the lives of 41 people, led to the evacuation of some 15,000 from their homes, and destroyed over 40,000 dunams of woodland. Two teens from Isfiya were arrested on suspicion of starting the fire when they threw hot coals from a water pipe into a mound of garbage near their home. The two are expected to be brought before the Haifa Magistrate's court today for an extension of their remand.

Haifa fire department spokesman Hezi Levi said yesterday that early findings indicated the fire spread from the vicinity of outlying homes of the village. "Investigators found piles of consumer trash thrown out by residents," said Levi, "mattresses, tires and so on. For a fire you need three ingredients - flammable materials, strong winds and the right topographical conditions, and there we found all three."

An earlier suspicion that the fire was started by arson at an illegal waste site in the village was rejected, after Environmental Protection Ministry officials who visited the site on the first day of the blaze found it was entirely intact. The waste site, in fact, only finally caught fire yesterday.

Police stress they believe the Carmel blaze was started as a result of negligence, rather than arson, but that arsonists were indeed responsible for a wave of apparent copycat fires started in a number of locations across the country yesterday. The largest of these began at about noon in the industrial zone of Tzur Shalom in the north of Kiryat Bialik, near Haifa. Because of the thick smoke generated by the fire, police closed the north-south Route No.4 between Kiryat Bialik and Acre for several hours. Fires also broke out near Ma'alot-Tarshiha, in several locations east of Shfaram, and around the city of Nazareth, as well as elsewhere in the north.

Meteorologists said that although weather will continue to be unseasonably warm, temperatures will drop slightly and humidity will rise. Forecaster Tzachi Waxman of the Meteotech company said that some rain is expected to fall overnight tonight, continuing into Monday. Fresh westerly winds are expected to pick up, but Waxman stressed weather will be more autumnal than winterly, and that rains will cease and temperatures will rise back up on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, police said that the process of identifying the bodies of all 41 victims of the fire was complete. Some 37 of the dead were cadets on their way to evict the Damon prison, whose bus was caught in the blaze. Only three passengers of the bus survived. Other casualties included commander of operations for the northern district of police, Brig. Gen. Lior Bocker, who was also on his way to the Damon prison, and Chief Superintendent Yitzhak Malina, killed on his way to assist the prison service cadets trapped in the burning bus. Some of the victims were brought to rest on Friday, and funerals are expected to continue in the coming days.

(Zafrir Rinat, Yaniv Kubovich, Ilan Lior, Eli Ashkenazi, Chaim Levinson and Asaf Shtull-Trauring contributed to this report.)