Devastating wildfires mostly contained as major heatwave begins to recede

Section of Jordan Valley highway shuttered as firefighters work to put out blaze; 3 suspected East Jerusalem arsonists arrested

A firefighter walks past a burning house amid extreme heat wave in Kibbutz Harel in central Israel on May 23, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
A firefighter walks past a burning house amid extreme heat wave in Kibbutz Harel in central Israel on May 23, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Most of the fires which ravaged Israel in recent days were reportedly under control as of Friday night, though firefighters were still working to put out a blaze in the Jordan Valley and some areas of the country remained closed to the public.

Fueled by scorching weather, the spate of fires devastated towns and forests, forcing thousands out of their homes. Authorities investigating the source of the fires were looking into electrical faults, Lag B’Omer holiday bonfires, arson on the ground and incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip. Three residents of East Jerusalem were arrested on suspicion of arson.

Firefighters were still working to extinguish several brush fires in the north near the cities of Afula, Tiberias and Nazareth.

Firefighters in the south of the country said late Friday the area had resumed its normal routine after responders dealt with 62 fire-related incidents. The major fires occurred in Moshav Yachini, Shahar and Beit Ezra. Three fires were reportedly ignited by incendiary balloons flown from Gaza, the Walla news site reported.

Candle holders are scattered in a house that was badly damaged by fire amidst extreme heatwave in the village of Mevo Modi’im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Another fire broke out Friday night in Ramat Sirin, in the Jordan Valley, threatening avocado orchards in the area. Authorities suspected arsonists ignited the blaze and blocked off a section of Route 90 near the fire.

Dozens of homes were evacuated over the course of two days, mostly in the village of Mevo Modi’im. The cause of that fire is still under investigation. Forty of the 50 homes in the village burned.

“As a child I thought we lived in paradise, and yesterday we lost it. I hope the nature will come back and we can rebuild,” said Tzofia Taizi, a 22-year-old resident of the village.

“Our Garden of Eden has burned,” Tazizi told the Ynet news site.

Kibbutz Harel in central Israel was also particularly hard hit. Residents of the two communities had not been allowed to return home.

The Jewish Agency said it would provide emergency assistance to families who lost homes in Mevo Modi’im and Kibbutz Harel, with contributions from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Firefighters battle a blaze near Kibbutz Harel in central Israel, May 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Security forces arrested three male East Jerusalem residents on suspicion of arson Friday. Each was suspected of attempting to ignite fires in the Jerusalem area, in separate incidents. A 19-year-old was arrested after reports of a fire breaking out next to Mount Scopus Friday morning; a 15-year-old was arrested after another fire in the same area; and a 30-year-old was arrested Friday morning over suspicions that he set a fire Thursday in the Kidron Valley, according to Walla.

Routes 443, connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which had been closed as a result of the fires, was again opened to traffic.

Police warned the public to stay away from the Ben Shemen forest during the weekend due to the danger of further fires and smoke inhalation. The Nature and Parks Authority asked the public to avoid open areas and bicycle paths in light of the ongoing, extreme weather conditions.

Twelve planes and six helicopters took part in the firefighting, making a total of some 200 flights, Channel 13 reported.

Cyprus ground firefighting units arrived in Israel on Friday morning, and the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that a delegation from Cyprus, including aircraft, arrived at the Tel Nof military base Friday evening. Air support from Greece, Croatia and Italy was expected in Israel later in the day. The international help came after Netanyahu put out an urgent plea for aid in battling the blazes.

Firefighters extinguish the fire of a burning house amid extreme heat wave in Kibbutz Harel in central Israel on May 23, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

An Egyptian helicopter operated in the area of Ashdod, making it the first Egyptian aircraft in the area since 1948.

Four Palestinian Authority firefighting teams had assisted Israeli responders, the Fire and Rescue Services said.

Fifteen people had been treated for smoke inhalation in Neguhot, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, one of whom was hospitalized.

A firefighter was lightly injured while working to extinguish the blaze by a gas tank that exploded, Ynet reported. He suffered second degree burns and was taken to the hospital for further treatment.

A high temperature of 116ºF (47ºC) was recorded at the village of Beit Haarava, near the Dead Sea, late Friday afternoon.

Temperatures had begun to drop gradually beginning Friday night.

Thursday’s fires in Kibbutz Harel and Carmia were reportedly caused by an electric failure. The electricity company disputed the finding, saying its own investigator had found that electric failures were not at fault.

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