Israeli medics walk near a charred bus that was trapped in a huge forest fire… (Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Jerusalem — A raging forest fire in northern Israel killed at least 37 prison guards Thursday when their bus was engulfed by flames while they rushed to evacuate a detention facility. Nearby firefighters tried desperately to rescue them as some guards hugged the floor of the vehicle in search of shelter, witnesses said.
Dozens of people were injured as the wildfire continued to burn out of control late Thursday night in the usually lush Carmel Forest near the port city of Haifa. Among the injured was the head of Haifa's police department, Deputy Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer, who was critically burned in the area where the bus was trapped.
"This is an unprecedented disaster," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address before inspecting the scene of what many observers termed the worst forest fire in Israeli history.
The guards, mostly cadets in training, were on their way to help evacuate Damon prison near the town of Usfiya, prison officials said. About 500 prisoners, mostly Palestinians and foreigners, were being moved to other locations as the fire approached.
Officials said the bus was trapped by wind-swept flames, which suddenly changed direction and quickly jumped across the road.
"The bus didn't stand a chance," firefighter Dudu Vaanunu told Israel's Channel 2. "It couldn't turn around or escape. People tried to save themselves and were burned alive."
Television video showed the still-burning remains of the bus as well as a charred passenger car, both reduced to their frames and blanketed by ash. Covered bodies lay by the side of the road.
The identities of the victims were not released, but the mayor of Usfiya said some of the guards came from his Druze village.
Addressing the Druze community, Netanyahu praised the guards' "strength and heroism. People sacrificed themselves to save others."
Israel Prison Service officials expressed shock and dispatched social workers to assist distraught family members as they began the process of identifying the bodies.
Netanyahu pledged to use all the government's means to combat the fire and asked the international community, including European nations and Russia, to dispatch firefighting airplanes to help douse the flames. Greece and Cyprus said they would send planes.
Israeli officials said that they expected to exhaust their nation's remaining supplies of chemical fire retardant by early Friday because of the unusually high number of forest fires this year.
"It's winter and no one expected such a fire," said Yoram Levy, a spokesman for the Israel Fire and Rescue Services. He said the Israeli air force was expected to fly in additional supplies from a French firm by Friday.
One fire official urged all of Israel's 1,500 firefighters to go to the scene, and emergency workers from all parts of the country rushed north to assist in the evacuation. But fire officials were pessimistic about their ability to contain flames, which reached heights of 30 feet and were moving in several directions.
The fire destroyed several structures in the village of Beit Oren, which had been evacuated. By late Thursday, seven towns had been ordered evacuated, including Nir Etzion, Ein Hod and Ain Khud. Several tourist hotels and the Haifa University campus were also evacuated.
An estimated 2,000 acres of forest land had been burned as of Thursday night, Levy said. Investigators suspect that the fire started at an illegal dumping site, news reports said.
Israel has a history of forest fires, but they usually burn without reaching populated areas and cause few casualties. Because of drought and warmer-than-usual temperatures, this year has been one of the worst for such fires. Last month, thousands of acres were scorched in northern Israel and the Golan Heights.
Much of the area destroyed last month was part of Israel's aggressive reforestation program, in which thousands of trees have been planted over the years.