The newly arrived US supertanker, considered the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, was among 29 planes operating across Israel to battle blazes on Saturday, the fifth day of a wave of massive nationwide fires, according to authorities.
The supertanker launched its first operation in the Jerusalem hills Saturday where fires have been raging since Tuesday and where residents were evacuated on Friday. On Saturday afternoon, residents of the Jerusalem hills village of Nataf were allowed to return to assess the damage. At least a dozen homes were consumed by the fire in the area, as was the famed Nataf restaurant Rama’s Kitchen.
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.
Earlier, six firefighting teams battled a fresh blaze in the Druze village of Daliyat al-Karmel, near the northern Israeli city of Haifa, bringing the fire under control.
In the West Bank settlement of Halamish, a blaze that was brought under control earlier in the day rekindled in three different locations on Saturday afternoon. Firefighting teams were working to put them out.
The fire in the settlement left 15 homes totally gutted 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.
Israeli security forces said they arrested 10 Palestinians on suspicion of arson on Saturday. The detainees include three people found in a car near the West Bank city of Ramallah, with full canisters of gasoline, rags, gloves and lighters in the vehicle, Ynet reported.
Authorities said a day earlier that 15 people had been arrested on suspicion of negligence or deliberately starting fires around the country, without providing many details on their identities.
On Saturday afternoon, IDF troops called to a northern West Bank area where figures were reportedly seen fleeing before a fire was sparked discovered a smoldering pile of tires, Ynet reported.
Over the past few days, security forces have arrested over 10 suspected Palestinian arsonists attempting to ignite fires…
Firefighting teams were battling the fire near the Um Rehan forest, a nature reserve northwest of the Palestinian city of Jenin.
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.
Police called Saturday for curious onlookers to keep away from the areas affected by the fires, including Nataf and Haifa, where on Friday more than 60,000 were forced to flee as massive towers of flames threatened entire neighborhoods. Residents were cleared to return Friday. 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.
Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said Saturday that the territory burned over the past days, some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) of natural forests and bushes, was about 30 percent greater than the territory affected in the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. Most of the territory burned includes the Judean Hills national park and the Kfir natural reserve.
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% of the country’s citizens, are as much affected by the fires as the Jewish population.
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.”
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 was 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 the night trying to save 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, Ynet reported. 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.