Fires continued to smolder in some parts of Israel on Saturday, after a day of massive blazes on Friday brought devastation to the West Bank settlement of Halamish and areas of the Jerusalem hills.
The newly arrived US supertanker, considered the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, joined the emergency operation on Saturday afternoon, beginning with the fires burning in the Jerusalem hills, where firefighters have been struggling to contain the flames since Tuesday.
The main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Route 1, was shut briefly on Saturday afternoon between the Sha’ar Hagai and Horesh interchanges, as the massive plane went into action.
In Halamish, a blaze that was brought under control in earlier in the day rekindled in three different locations on Saturday afternoon. The fire left 15 homes totally gutted overnight and more than two dozen others with varying degrees of damage, and forced the hundreds of residents to evacuate. Surveying the scene Saturday morning, local residents vowed to rebuild, even as firefighters worked to put out the last of the flames.
Israelis hoped Saturday that the worst of the fires — some of which are believed to have been started deliberately — were behind them. But dry weather and strong winds have played a major part in the spread of the flames, and rain was not forecast for several more days.
Blazes were also reported near the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Alfei Menashe and Karnei Shomron, although there were no evacuations there. In northern Israel, firefighters on Saturday brought under control a fire that broke out at the Harashim community in the Galilee, and residents were allowed to return to their homes.
Near the northern city of Nazareth Illit, six firefighting teams were working Saturday afternoon to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Churchill Forest, the Ynet news website reported. Over the past 24 hours there were five fires in the forest.
In Nataf, built atop a hillside on the outskirts of Jerusalem, inhabitants were evacuated for the third time in four days Friday, as renewed wildfire reached the community despite the best efforts of scores of firefighters to beat back the flames that threatened numerous homes there and elsewhere in the nearby area.
Famed Nataf restaurant Rama’s Kitchen burned to the ground in the afternoon, just a short time after a wedding party was forced to flee along with the staff. Restaurant owner Maya Ben Zvi, who watched as the building went up in flames, also saw damage to her home in the community. She too pledged to start over.
The fire surrounding Nataf was brought under control early Saturday, Channel 10 television said. Residents were finally allowed to return on Saturday afternoon; previously fears remained that the blaze could flare up again. Palestinian firefighters joined the efforts to douse the remnants of the fire on Saturday morning.
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said Friday night that investigators know who set fire to the woods near Nataf, and that authorities “were prepared to thwart” those involved through “deterrence and catching suspects, through observers and patrols in the sky and on land.”
“These are very simple terror attacks,” he told Army Radio. “Generally the attackers themselves know about it only a few minutes beforehand, so we can’t make preventative arrests.”
Authorities said they had arrested 15 people on suspicion of negligence or deliberately starting fires around the country, without providing many details on their identities. Some politicians have pointed the finger at members of the Arab community, saying the fires were started on purpose in nationalistic acts of terror.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was “no doubt” some of the fires had been deliberate. “There is a price to pay for the crimes committed, there is a price to pay for arson terrorism,” he said.
Arab Israeli leaders have argued that their communities, which make up about 17.5 percent of the country’s citizens, are as much affected by the fires as the Jewish population.
Police investigating a massive blaze that hit the Jerusalem hills community of Beit Meir said Saturday that the fire that began early Friday could have been accidentally started by flares from an Israeli Air Force surveillance plane that was tracking two people fleeing the area. Footage from the plane showed flames suddenly appear from the area where the two were later arrested.
It is still unclear how the fire started, or whether the two — who Ynet said were known to police as thieves — were involved in arson or were fleeing after trying to carry out a robbery in the village. The pair have been remanded in custody for six days.
Dozens of firefighters spent Thursday night fighting the blaze at Beit Meir, near Abu Ghosh, but were unable stop the flames reaching a “great many” homes, police said. There were no reports of injuries as the village’s residents had already been evacuated.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection warned Saturday of high air pollution in southern Israel, in particular in the Arava region, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea resort city of Eilat. The ministry recommended that anyone suffering from heart and lung problems, the elderly, children and pregnant women in those areas remain indoors. Lower levels of air pollution were also reported in the rest of the country, after days of fires filled the air with thick smoke in multiple locations.
Firefighting planes from Israel and countries including Cyprus, Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain and Canada continued to dump tons of water and retardants on fires at various locations, including Nataf, on Saturday. The Palestinian Authority has also joined the efforts to extinguish the blazes, sending 41 firefighters and eight trucks to massive fires in the northern city of Haifa. Palestinian firefighters from Ramallah also joined forces with their Israeli counterparts on Friday night to battle the blaze in Halamish. And on Saturday, the PA fire chief was due to visit the Israeli fire service command centers in Rishon Letzion and Neve Ilan.
In Haifa, where tens of thousands had been evacuated Thursday from the path of towering flames that threatened entire neighborhoods, residents started to return to assess the damage.
Police cleared all Haifa residents to return to their homes Friday afternoon, after more than 60,000 people were forced to flee.
Some 600-700 homes were damaged in the blazes, with over 400 of them said to be uninhabitable and 37 completely destroyed, city officials said.
Police called Saturday for curious onlookers to keep away from the areas affected by the fires, including Nataf and Haifa. The presence of rubberneckers made it hard for emergency personnel to access the locations, the police said.