Fire Department officials suspect that a major forest fire that broke out near the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ein Kerem and Kiryat Hayovel Wednesday afternoon was caused by a bonfire lit by a group of hikers in the area.
Ruling out arson, police on Thursday said that, based on eyewitness accounts, the hikers attempted to put out the blaze but could not control the flames.
Firefighters contained the flames late Wednesday and were putting out remaining hotspots in southwest Jerusalem throughout the following day.
Thirty-four firefighting teams and six aircraft fought the flames, according to the Jerusalem branch of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.
Additional teams from the West Bank and the firefighters’ training school were also called in to help contain the fire.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shahar Ayalon were present at the scene.
Hundreds of residents of nearby apartment buildings were evacuated as the flames reached roads in the area. Three people were lightly injured by smoke inhalation, according to Channel 2.
Investigators reached the site Thursday morning to search for the source of the blaze, as suspicion grew that it was caused by human activity.
“If it broke out as a result of negligence or was intentional — our joint team in Jerusalem needs to investigate this,” said Commissioner Ayalon Thursday morning on Israel Radio. “We investigate every incident like this. We will open an investigation along with everyone who was involved yesterday — police and the JNF.”
Ayalon also said that the forest was allowed to grow too densely, and that underbrush would be cleared out as Haifa began doing after the 2010 Carmel blaze.
Some of the problem was caused by fallen trees and broken branches in the wake of last December’s snowstorm.
With the onset of a heatwave over the next several days, the Fire and Rescue Authority canceled vacations for firefighters in anticipation of additional blazes.
Ein Kerem, a picturesque neighborhood in the capital, is home to several significant Christian sites, and the Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem is located nearby.