As firefighters battled a massive blaze near Jerusalem for a third day Tuesday, the head of Israel’s fire and rescue body said international help was no longer needed, in an apparent sign of confidence that the flames are being brought under control.
However, Israel accepted an offer of help from the Palestinian Authority, as firefighters were racing to extinguish dozens of remaining hotspots.
The enormous wildfire has consumed some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of forest outside Jerusalem since Sunday — surpassing the scale of a December 2010 forest fire in the north that burned 24,000 dunams and claimed the lives of 44 people.
Officials predicted a rehabilitation process that may take decades, and some residents criticized authorities for failing to act quickly enough in the first hours and losing control over the wildfire.
Fire and Rescue Services chief Dedi Simchi told Public Security Minister Omer Barlev following a tour of fire hotspots in the area on Tuesday that the government’s request for international help can be withdrawn.
Rescue officials had earlier asked the government to seek international assistance. Foreign Ministry officials obtained commitments to help from Cyprus and Greece, the ministry said, and reports said Turkey also offered help.
Four Palestinian firefighting teams, totaling 20 people, arrived from the West Bank in the afternoon and were helping to battle the blaze.
צוותי הכבאות של הרשות הפלסטינית בדרך להרי ירושלים לסיוע במאמץ לכיבוי האש
ביום השלישי לשריפה pic.twitter.com/uoYg1VxTwM
— Yanal Jabarin | ينال جبارين (@JbareenYanal) August 17, 2021
It is the third time the PA was providing help in extinguishing major fires in Israel, after it did so during the Carmel fire in 2010 and during wildfires in central and northern Israel in 2016.
Firefighters believed they had managed to contain the blaze on Sunday night, but strong morning winds and low humidity on Monday sent the flames roaring back and speeding toward villages and towns throughout the hills on Jerusalem’s southwest outskirts, triggering the evacuation of some 2,000 local residents and prompting the government to seek international aid.
Multiple towns and villages near the Sataf forest area and along the Route 1 highway that connects Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were threatened by the resurgent blaze, officials said. Kiryat Ye’arim, Givat Ye’arim, Tzova, Ein Rafa, Ein Nakuba, Sho’eva, the Eitanim psychiatric hospital, Shoresh, Har Etan and other towns and villages were evacuated as firefighters deployed along Jerusalem’s southern perimeter to establish a defensive line against the spread of the fire toward the capital.
Residents of two communities, Givat Ye’arim and Tzova, were still unable to return to their homes Tuesday morning, Fire and Rescue official Niso Guetta told Army Radio.
“Toward the night the fire subsided, but there are still lots of hotspots near communities,” he said. “We are deployed in many areas because the winds could bring the fire to new places.”
Winds were expected to pick up during the day, Guetta added.
On Monday, the fire had already seemed to be under control, with all hotspots extinguished by the late afternoon — except one.
“We were close to fully putting it out, and one small hotspot we didn’t manage to reach in time is the one that breached our lines and created a new firestorm,” KKL-JNF Northern Region director Omri Bone, who is assisting the efforts near Jerusalem, told the Walla news site.
“I expect there to be more renewed fires we will have to deal with, in hopes that this time we will manage to fully extinguish the fire before the winds start in the afternoon,” he added.
Many dozens of firefighting teams and planes were taking part in the efforts, with several additional aircraft entering use Tuesday and Israel set to get help from several countries.
Some local residents were critical of the state’s initial response to the fire, claiming that planes should have been part of the effort from the start.
“We saw the fire in Beit Meir and it started moving toward us. Had planes gone up that moment, it would have been over in the blink of an eye, with no damage,” Eli Ben Zaken, a winery owner from Ramat Raziel, told Walla.
“I came home and the fire had already neared us. We were lucky the fire passed us from both sides, but didn’t pass here. There is no direct damage, but the smoke is devastating for wine. We have 60 tonnes we can’t use. The damage is immense,” he said.
Another unnamed Ramat Raziel resident told Walla that the initial action on Sunday took too long.
“From 2:30 p.m., when the fire started, until 5:30 p.m., there was no fire truck, no command center, no responsibility. Dozens of frightened families escaped, with authorities not knowing where to evacuate them, and only at 5:30 did firefighters arrive and it was too late for many places,” he said.
Reports had suggested Monday that Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, the largest medical center in the country, which lies on Jerusalem southwest edge, had been directly threatened by the blaze. Jerusalem Police, Magen David Adom and hospital officials had prepared to evacuate the hospital, which houses thousands of patients at a time, but that danger passed.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, firefighters and search-and-rescue troops from the Home Front Command, along with the elite helicopter-borne Unit 669 rescue detachment, were deployed to the area. The Air Force sent transport helicopters to the area on Monday afternoon in case rescue forces needed help speeding up the evacuations, officials said.
Israel has been sweltering under yet another heatwave with low humidity, providing ideal conditions for the flames to spread.
“The climate crisis will make such events more frequent and powerful, and Israel is particularly sensitive to drought and warming,” said Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg on a visit to a command center for the fire. “Climate disasters must be declared a strategic threat, and prepared for accordingly.”
The health and environmental protection ministries issued a statement saying that there was very high pollution in the Jerusalem Hills region and residents were advised to reduce outdoor sports activity, stay indoors and close windows. Those with heart or lung conditions, older people, children and pregnant women were advised not to go outside unnecessarily.
The blaze is now one of the biggest in the country’s history, surpassing what had thus far been the largest in the Jerusalem area, in 1995. It has scorched vast green forest areas that include beloved hiking paths and national parks, including the Sataf site and Har Hatayasim.
“After the flames are out we will think about rehabilitation,” said Bone, the KKL-JNF official. “The green look can be reached within a few years, but full rehabilitation will take decades. When old forests burn, natural rehabilitation is preferable, but when there are cases where renewal is insufficient over a large area, we intervene and plant [trees].”
However, Bone was optimistic.
“We are adopting an approach that sees any disaster as an opportunity for change and improvement for our visitors,” he said. “Eleven years after the Carmel fire, most places have young trees that are one or two meters high. They don’t look like a forest, they don’t provide shade, but we are patient.”