Brush fire forces evacuation of Jerusalem-area village

Authorities say high winds, dry conditions exacerbating blazes across the country; minister mulling requesting international assistance

A large fire in the Jerusalem hills forced residents of Nataf, west of the capital, to evacuate their homes Wednesday morning, as the latest in a series of brush fires to rage across the country encroached on the small village.

Firefighters were battling the blaze, which had been stoked by strong winds, with 25 teams and four planes.

Children at local schools and some of Nataf’s hundreds of residents were evacuated to the community center in the adjacent village of Abu Ghosh.

Nearby, residents of Neve Ilan and Mevo Horon were put on an evacuation alert if the flames continued to spread.

Three homes in Nataf were reportedly destroyed, but a village official told the Ynet news site there were no injuries.

By early afternoon, authorities said Nataf homes were no longer in danger, though residents were still instructed to stay away.

Four construction workers paving a road near the village were detained by police in connection to the blaze. A statement from police said investigators were looking into whether negligence at the work site led to the fire.

Fire fighters work to put out a forest fire near Zichron Yaakov on November 22, 2016. (Meir Vaaknin /Flash90)
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near Zichron Yaakov on November 22, 2016. (Meir Vaaknin /Flash90)

Meanwhile, firefighters in Zichron Yaakov continued to battle a large blaze that had engulfed dozens of homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents a day earlier.

The blazes near Zichron and Nataf were the latest in a series of brush fires across the country over the last 36 hours that authorities have blamed on high winds and dry conditions.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the relevant authorities were looking into requesting international assistance in putting out the fires.

“We are considering whether to implement the mutual assistance agreements we have with Greece and Croatia and to bring additional firefighting planes to Israel,” Erdan tweeted Wednesday morning.

The fire in Zichron destroyed at least 10 homes, and eight people, including three children, were treated for smoke inhalation at a local hospital. Some 3,000 residents of the neighborhoods of Har Eden, Givat Zamarin and the surrounding area who were evacuated late Tuesday night were told their homes would remain off-limits for at least several days.

“We expect that in the coming days residents will not be able to return due to the high winds, which present a real risk of loss of life,” said Maj.-Gen. Amos Yaakov, commander of the Coastal District police.

Yaakov said some 30 firefighting teams, 12 military firefighting units and four planes were working to tamp down the fire.

Earlier Wednesday morning, firefighters battled a massive blaze that neared homes in the West Bank settlement of Dolev, northwest of Jerusalem.

The flames, reportedly reaching 20 meters in height, were extinguished by 21 firefighting units and local volunteers who worked throughout the night. Three trailers were reportedly damaged by the fire.

The conflagrations came after a day that saw several fires whipped up by high winds and dry conditions, starting with a forest fire that led to the evacuation of the Neve Shalom community outside Jerusalem overnight Monday. Residents of the coexistence community were told they could return to their homes late Tuesday morning after firefighters successfully beat back the fire before it reached the village.

Israel’s Police Chief Roni Alsheich warned Tuesday evening that weather conditions would increase the likelihood of more forest fires in the coming days. Speaking from a command center near Zichron Yaakov, Alsheich told journalists that “we have gone through a tough couple of days and we are expecting the next couple to be no less difficult.”

The Magen David Adom emergency response service was also preparing for conditions to worsen in the coming days, saying that additional emergency medical crews had been deployed across the country.

Citing high levels of air pollution caused by the fires, a number of local authorities have recommended those suffering from respiratory conditions, cardiovascular disease and elderly people leave affected areas.

Over the 36 hours, fires were also reported near Hadera, Lachish, the Haifa suburb of Nesher, the Etzion Bloc, and outside the northern town of Kfar Vradim.

Yaakov, the Coastal District chief, said Wednesday morning that police were looking into suspicions the series of fires could have been caused by nationalistically motivated arson attacks.

“When you’re battling six fronts at once, your suspicions run high, but I cannot say for sure,” he said.

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