All Haifa residents were cleared Friday afternoon to return to their homes, police said, after more than 60,000 people were evacuated from the city on Thursday as massive fires spread through the area.
Some 600-700 homes were damaged in the blazes, with over 400 of them said to be unlivable and 37 completely destroyed, city officials said. Some streets remained without electricity. Police said officers would continue to patrol the affected neighborhoods to help any of the returning residents who need assistance.
“The public is asked to continue to be alert and take personal responsibility and show an abundance of caution when dealing with anything related to using fire and fire safety,” a police statement read.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said Friday that the evacuation of some 60,000 residents in the course of Thursday was the largest mass civilian mobilization in the country’s history.
Yahav advised non-residents to stay away from the city until it has time to recover.
Earlier Friday, residents of the Denya neighborhood where Yahav himself lives were cleared by officials to return.
Twenty-six people from Haifa were still in hospital Friday — with one elderly woman in moderate condition and the others with light injuries caused by smoke inhalation, according to the Israel Radio.
On Friday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon visited Haifa and authorized officials to hand out cash advances to those who were left homeless and without money.
“About places to sleep, I told the mayor and other officials across the country, don’t look at the money and the bureaucracy, just work. Now we have to find solutions for the residents,” the Walla news site quoted him as saying.
Several people have been arrested for trying to loot homes that were evacuated, police officials said Friday.
“During the night we were busy preventing looting and we caught a few people who were trying,” Zohar Dvir, a senior police officer, told the Ynet news site.
More than a dozen people are in custody for allegedly starting some of the Haifa fires and others elsewhere in Israel. It is not clear how many of the fires were the result of arson, as opposed to negligence and the dry, windy weather.
Police arrested one man Friday morning on suspicion of starting a blaze that destroyed at least 10 homes in the village of Beit Meir in the Jerusalem hills overnight. He was taken in for questioning, police said.
“We believe there are arsonists out there, but also weather conditions that allow this to spark [without human aid],” Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevy told Army Radio Friday.
Also speaking Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there is “no doubt there have been incidents of arson.” However, he did not say how many of the hundreds of fires were deliberately set.