Fires consume iconic memorial forest for Holocaust victims near Jerusalem

Kdoshei Zaglambia monument in the Judean Hills, also a site of unique biodiversity, is ravaged by flames amid wave of blazes across Israel

Firefighters extinguish the remains of a fire in Kibbutz Harel, on May 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Firefighters extinguish the remains of a fire in Kibbutz Harel, on May 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Wildfires in the Jerusalem area on Friday ravaged one of Israel’s prettiest and largest memorial forests.

The fires, aided by a scorching heat of over 104ºF (40ºC) and eastern winds, consumed the Jewish National Fund’s forest around the Kdoshei Zaglambia Holocaust monument, Ynet reported.

Situated on the western slopes of the Judean Hills, the forest planted decades ago for Polish victims of the genocide has a unique biodiversity owing to its location on the seam line connecting Israel’s humid coastal plain to its mountainous and arid interior.

On Friday, the fire was still raging across large areas of the coastal plain and creeping uphill in the direction of the Ben Shemen Forest. Mevo Modi’im, located 15 miles east of Tel Aviv, saw several of its homes destroyed, as did Kibbutz Harel, west of Jerusalem.

An Egyptian rescue helicopter, whose services the Egyptian government offered on Thursday, helped contain the fire near Harel.

Fires raged across the country Friday for the second day in a row, as officials warned the public to stay away from parks and forests.

Residents of Neguhot in the South Hebron Hills were evacuated by authorities after a wildfire threatened the settlement, and fifteen people from the community were being treated for smoke inhalation, including one who was hospitalized.

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

The flames have caused major disruptions in train traffic and congestion along main arteries between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The fire service on Friday said some of the blazes in southern Israel, and those that ravaged homes in Kibbutz Harel on Thursday, were apparently started as a result of the shorting of Israel Electric Company cables, according to a preliminary investigation.

The outbreak came as Jewish Israelis marked the Lag B’Omer holiday on Thursday — which is usually celebrated with bonfires, though most were restricted this year due to the weather warnings — fueling speculation that bonfires gone awry were the source of the crisis.

Teams from Cyprus and Egypt were assisting Israeli firefighters, including four planes from Cyprus and two helicopters from Egypt.

Four Palestinian teams were also assisting, the Fire and Rescue Services said.

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