Heavy dust storms and haze blanketed Israel’s skies on Saturday, causing extreme levels of air pollution, officials announced, as dozens of families across the country were evacuated from their homes due to wildfires that broke out amid the hot, dry and dusty conditions.
The Environmental Protection Ministry and Health Ministry have recommended that people reduce strenuous physical activity outdoors.
This is especially important for sensitive populations, such as those with heart and lung conditions, the elderly, children and pregnant women, who are to avoid physical activity outdoors altogether, as per the ministry’s recommendation.
According to the announcement, the air pollution is due to high concentrations of breathable particles in the atmosphere caused by meteorological conditions. Strong winds, carrying dust from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are causing the local dust storms.
The ministry said the weather conditions are likely to continue on Sunday as well.
“The climate crisis is here and it requires us to prepare now,” Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, fires were reported in a number of locations throughout the day, with emergency teams called in from across the country.
Strong easterly winds not only fanned the flames but also brought down a tree in a park in the central village of Burgeta, moderately injuring a 14-year-old girl.
Families living on the outskirts of Zeitan were evacuated from their homes on Saturday afternoon when a fire began to close in on the central Israel community. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries and police later said that parts of the fire had been brought under control.
And some 30 homes on the outskirts of Yarka were evacuated due to similar conditions near the northern town. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries there either.
Earlier, all the residents of the northern village of Gita — 75 households — were evacuated due to what fire services declared to be “a real danger” to the community. A number of hours later they were told they could return to their homes.
Six homes in Gita sustained damage, police said. There were no reports of injuries.
In the early hours of Saturday, a fire broke out close to the West Bank settlement of Har Adar. Israel Fire and Rescue Services said 17 teams operated on the ground, with firefighting planes providing aerial support. That blaze was eventually brought under control.
Minor fires were also brought under control near the central city of Rosh Ha’ayin, and the northern city of Hadera.
The fires came as numerous national parks were closed to hikers over the weekend amid fears of large wildfires.
The Nature and Parks Authority announced Friday that all hiking paths in the Carmel Forest region (except for the Me’arot River reserve) were off-limits, as well as all trails in the Judean Mountains and Shfela region. The Amud Stream reserve in the Galilee was also closed, and all hiking on paths along the coast was prohibited between Hadera in the north and Zikim in the south.
On Saturday, officials said the Tel Dan nature reserve would also be shut down. A number of beaches at the Sea of Galilee were closed due to the high winds.
The closures — effective through Sunday — came as the country was gripped with unseasonably warm weather on Saturday, reaching highs of 89°F (31°C) in the Dead Sea region, 82°F (27°C) in Haifa, and 86°F (30°C) in Tel Aviv.
A nationwide fire ban, instituted earlier this week, remains in effect until November 30.
Israel continues to experience above-average temperatures and little rainfall.
Some of Israel’s most devastating fires have come in November and December, including the December 2010 Carmel Fire which claimed 44 lives, and a nationwide outbreak of fires in late November 2016, which left thousands homeless.
Israel is still recovering from an August wildfire near Jerusalem which consumed some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of forest, becoming the country’s largest-ever blaze.
At the time, Israel had been sweltering under yet another heatwave with low humidity, providing ideal conditions for the flames to spread.