Israeli officials began to assess the damage to residents, homes and wildlife as firefighters offered tentative assessments that the wave of fires that has swept the country over the past six days has come to an end.
Scattered small fires are continuing to start mainly in the Jerusalem area, driven by dry and windy weather, officials said, but since Saturday night, firefighters have managed to reach and put out small fires before they could grow to threaten nearby towns or forests.
The cabinet has relocated its weekly meeting on Sunday to Haifa, where ministers will get a close look at a dozen neighborhoods affected by the fires and consider Finance Ministry plans to compensate residents and help them rebuild.
At least 60,000 of the city’s residents were evacuated Thursday while firefighters battled to contain a blaze that had entered a dozen of the city’s neighborhoods from the nearby Carmel Forest.
Most had returned home by Sunday morning, but an estimated 1,600 residents remained without homes. Between 400 and 530 apartments are said to be completely destroyed by the flames.
Residents will also return to the West Bank settlement of Halamish Sunday after they were evacuated the day before as flames approached the village. At least 18 homes were gutted by the fire and another 40 were damaged.
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.
Meanwhile, the Nature and Parks Authority reported that some 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres) of national parks were burned. The Jewish National Fund, which plants and manages many of the country’s forests, said some 11,000 additional dunams (2,700 acres) of its own forests were also destroyed.
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 damage to local ecosystems is expected to be great. “Many small animals simply burned to death,” one Parks Authority official told Army Radio Sunday morning. “For many animals the forests that were burned down were their main protection against predators.”
Firefighters will remain on highest alert at least until Friday, officials said. More favorable weather, including a rise in humidity and drop in wind, is expected by Tuesday, while forecasts look for rain by Thursday, ending the unseasonable dry spell that started and exacerbated much of the wave of fires.
But officials on Sunday are also looking at a wave of arson, most carried out by Palestinians, that reportedly were responsible for some of the most damaging fires, including in Haifa.
On Saturday, Israeli troops arrested five Palestinian suspects in connection with three arson attempts in the West Bank and Israel, the army said.
Three suspects were picked up near Ariel on the suspicion that they started a fire outside the West Bank settlement on Thursday night.
One man was arrested in Barta’a, on the West Bank side of the Arab village. He is suspected of starting a fire in the nearby Reihan forest.
The fifth suspect was arrested for allegedly starting a fire near Mei Ami, a Jewish community near Umm-al-Fahm, the army says.
In all, at least 35 people have been arrested since Thursday on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so. Most are Palestinians, but the Haaretz daily reports Sunday that at least 10 are Israeli Arabs.
It was not immediately clear that the motive of all the arsonists was nationalistic. Some of the fires they are believed to have started were near Arab villages and towns.
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 — 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.”
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.
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.
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