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International help pours in as Israel battles forest fire

From Bulgaria to Jordan and Greece, even Turkey, send firefighters, equipment, helicopters and other help as a fire rages in Carmel Forest. The toll rises to 41 as officials hope to control the blaze by weekend.

December 04, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Jerusalem — From Jordanian firefighters to Greek aircraft, a rare outpouring of international support for Israel helped the nation battle its worst-ever forest fire Friday, but the blaze continued to rage out of control.

The death toll was revised to at least 41 people, according to Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. They included 36 prison guards whose bus was engulfed in flames Thursday as they rushed to help evacuate a nearby prison.

The toll includes two police officers who were trapped in the same firestorm that ensnared the bus. One passenger car reportedly was able to escape only by speeding through the flames.

Four rescue workers remain missing, Rosenfeld said. Nearly 7,000 acres have burned and 17,000 people have been evacuated from towns around Carmel Forest, near the northern port city of Haifa.

Responding to an appeal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for help, Bulgaria and Jordan sent firefighters; Cyprus, Greece, Russia and the United States dispatched aircraft to ferry water and chemical retardant; Britain sent helicopters; and additional assistance came from Spain, Azerbaijan, Romania and Egypt, government officials said.

"This attests to the unprecedented international response to our appeal for international help and it is very important to Israel in every possible aspect," Netanyahu said during an emergency Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv. "The extraordinary response from the world should offer some comfort to Israeli citizens at this difficult moment."

Fire officials hoped to have the blaze under control by the weekend.

Even Turkey sent two planes to assist in the emergency effort, despite the strained relations between the two countries since May, when Israeli commandoes raided a ship, killing nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American dual citizen, who were trying to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"We very much appreciate this mobilization and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries," Netanyahu said of Turkey's help.

Israel, which takes pride in its self-sufficiency and has few friends in the region, has seldom asked for outside help in coping with a natural disaster. It has frequently lent its support and expertise to other nations during times of need, such as during the Haiti earthquake.

As the fire raged out of control Thursday, however, Israeli officials made an unusually frank admission that the country lacked the resources to stop it.

Government officials and pundits debated Friday who should be blamed for Israel's unpreparedness for fighting fires, a shortcoming that had been repeatedly underscored in recent years by studies and commissions.

The nation has only 1,500 firefighters, though international standards call for four times that number for a country of Israel's size.

After a series of fires this year, the government nearly ran out of chemical retardant Friday. Israel has no emergency aircraft to ferry seawater to fire sites.

Questions were also raised about how quickly firefighters responded. A flight instructor who reported the fire to authorities Thursday morning said it took nearly three hours for crews to react, allowing the blaze to spread.

"A national failure," wrote Itamar Eichner in Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "The fire service was always the stepchild of Israel's emergency services. Even though firefighters around the world are esteemed and regarded as heroes, Israel has never taken them too seriously. "

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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