The wildfires that have raged across Israel over five days have left at least 133 people injured, rendered hundreds of homes unlivable and consumed tens of thousands of dunams of protected parks and nature reserves.
The Magen David Adom rescue service reported Saturday that among the 133 people treated by the organization for fire-related injuries, one was seriously hurt and three others were moderately injured. The overall tally is likely higher, officials said, as some people – one estimate suggested as many as 50 – may have gone to hospitals on their own for injuries such as smoke inhalation.
Haifa was the worst-hit city from the blazes, with 527 homes completely destroyed, according to a Ynet News tally. Other reports have indicated a lower number, more than 400 homes, that were rendered unlivable in the northern city. Some 1,700 Haifa residents are not able to return home by late Saturday, Channel 2 said, because their homes are unlivable.
It appeared late Saturday that the worst of the fires — some of which are believed to have been started deliberately — were over. But dry weather and strong winds have played a major part in the spread of the flames, and rain was not forecast for several days.
The battle to push back the flames marked among the most difficult operations ever undertaken by Israel’s firefighters. Some 2,000 firefighters battled the fires since Tuesday, many of them working in grueling 24-hour shifts alongside 450 soldiers from the Home Front Command and 69 Cypriot firefighters.
Fourteen planes from Israel’s firefighting squadron, aided by at least 15 additional planes supplied by ten other nations, carried out some 480 sorties. A US supertanker was pressed into service soon after it arrived Saturday, flying sorties over Nataf in the Jerusalem hills to ensure no recurrence of the blazes there, though some fire officials said it was not needed. The Palestinian Authority sent fire crews to help; PA fire teams also assisted in fighting the fire overnight Friday-Saturday at the West Bank settlement of Halamish.
Over 1.5 million tons of fire retardant materials and liquids were used as of Saturday night.
The Nature and Parks Authority said over 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres) of protected park areas were burned, including 2,800 dunams (700 acres) in Haifa alone.
In all, as much as 130,000 dunams (32,000 acres) of natural forests and brush were destroyed, about 30 percent more than the territory affected by the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. A great deal of the Judean Hills National Park and the Kfir Nature Reserve were burned.
Haifa city officials said Saturday that the fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday. The evacuation of some 60,000 Haifa residents from about a dozen fire-threatened neighborhoods on Thursday was said by Mayor Yona Yahav to have been the biggest such operation in Israeli history.
As of Saturday night, security forces had arrested more than 35 people suspected of either arson or encouraging others to commit arson since Tuesday.
The fires that devastated Halamish were “apparently the result of arson by a gang of Palestinians,” Channel 10 reported on Saturday night. Security officials were quoted as saying that petrol bombs had been found at the scene.
This report was unconfirmed, however, as were reports that fires Friday at Nataf, the Jerusalem hills community that suffered heavy damage and where Rama’s Kitchen restaurant was destroyed, were started by a petrol bomb thrown from the adjacent Palestinian village of Katana. An earlier blaze in the area was likely caused after a mini-bonfire used by road workers to heat coffee was not properly doused.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) said Saturday that most of those arrested in connection with the fires are Palestinian residents of the West Bank. A “small minority” of the suspects are Arab Israelis, he added.
Israeli security officials on Saturday night gave preliminary indications that weather conditions were the prime cause of the initial wave of fires. Arsonists became a factor from Wednesday and into the weekend.
The officials have pointed to arsonists as being to blame for at least some of the fire outbreaks in Haifa — where the flames did the most damage, forcing the evacuation of more than 60,000 people on Thursday — but have given no indication of how central arson was to the Haifa fires overall.
According to a Channel 10 report, officials believed those calling the fires a kind of “arson intifada” were exaggerating, as most of the suspects were 16- to 20-year-olds with no record of security offenses who had jumped on the bandwagon after the first fires and were not affiliated with any organization or working in any hierarchy.
In an interview with Channel 2, Erdan urged that Israel use all the tools at its disposal to punish arsonists suspected of deliberately setting some of the fires, including counter-terror measures such as destroying their homes.
If law enforcement “can destroy the homes of terrorists who have shot or stabbed [Israelis], then we can demolish the homes of those who committed arson for nationalistic motives; there is no difference,” he said.
He called the cases of arson “a new kind of terror,” and said that whereas in the past there was incitement on social media that “encouraged people to go out and stab and car-ram” Israelis, this new version “now encourages them to go out and burn people alive, burn communities alive.”
Erdan stressed that the fires were not necessarily over, but were broadly under control, and that emergency forces were deployed to deal with new outbreaks. “A lot can happen between now and Tuesday,” when the weather is set to change and winds to die down, “but with God’s help, we should be able to deal with all events.”
Channel 2 said there had been 528 “points of fire” on Friday, and “only” 283 on Saturday, indicating that the blazes were tapering off somewhat. It was not clear how the points were determined.
Erdan stressed that nobody had been killed in the fires, and claimed “all the lessons have been learned” from the 2010 Carmel Forest fire in which 44 people were killed. He rejected concerns that Israel was over-reliant on assistance from overseas allies, or that the damage caused by the fires in places like Haifa and Zichron Yaakov pointed to inadequate precautions against the spread of what has become an annual threat of fires at this time of year.
He added there would be no school trips into woodlands before Tuesday.
Also Saturday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon approved a stipend of 2,500 shekels ($650) per person for those who have fled the raging fires and could not return to their homes either because they were destroyed or are currently uninhabitable.
The Finance Ministry held an emergency meeting Saturday night with officials from the city of Haifa.
“We will stand by our residents even after the smoke clears,” Kahlon said, adding that he gave instructions to officials to “be clear, be generous, and don’t let them [those affected] drown in paperwork or be passed around from [government] representative to representative.”
“It’s not an easy task to assess the damage but it is our duty to help residents rebuild their lives,” he said.