Israel’s top firefighting official was cautiously optimistic on Monday evening that the country’s worst wildfire in years had been contained, hours after it began to encroach on Jerusalem’s southern neighborhoods and to threaten the capital’s largest hospital.
“Tomorrow, 88 firefighting teams will continue to fight this fire,” Fire and Rescue Commissioner Dedi Simchi told reporters at a briefing outside Jerusalem on Monday night. “I hope and believe we’ll finish this tomorrow.”
The enormous wildfire consumed some 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of forest outside Jerusalem since Sunday. Firefighters believed they had managed to contain the blaze the night before, 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 Yearim, 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.
“The fire was on the scale of the Carmel forest [fire],” Simchi said, referring to a December 2010 forest fire in the north that claimed the lives of 44 people. Thanks to the work of firefighters, he added, “some of whom have been operating for 30 hours straight…there was no loss of life” this time around. The fires were still burning at 100 different hotspots throughout the Jerusalem hills, he cautioned.
“Putting out forest fires isn’t a simple task, it can take days,” Simchi added. “Until it’s entirely put out, there’s a risk of resurgence. You see fires around the world that have been going for a week or even two.”
He confirmed speculation that the fires were caused by humans. “There was no lightning in Israel today. The fires were a human act. We don’t know yet if it was arson or negligence. We’ll investigate.”
Reports throughout the day suggested Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, the largest hospital in the country, which lies on Jerusalem southwest edge, was 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.
Simchi confirmed the hospital had been in danger but said the danger had passed, and that dedicated firefighting teams had been deployed to the site throughout the crisis.
“A few hours ago, Ein Kerem was in danger. We posted 15 firetrucks there, commanded by an officer of deputy commissioner rank [the second-highest rank in the rescue services], because it’s a difficult site to evacuate,” Simchi said.
A short time later, responding to a question from a Channel 13 television reporter, he said the hospital would not be endangered by the blaze again Monday night. “Tonight, [the fire] will not get near [Hadassah hospital] — that I can promise you. We’ve deployed large forces…. To my relief, the fire is not moving in that direction. And if it does move in that direction, the firefighters … will protect Hadassah Hospital.”
Earlier Monday, Simchi ordered a general mobilization of all firefighters, including off-duty ones, in a bid to stem the blaze.
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.
The Defense Ministry said Monday it was working to rent six planes from a private aviation company to assist in the firefighting effort.
“The planes are expected to go into service beginning tomorrow morning and to expand our aerial firefighting capability. At the same time, the possibility of commandeering additional civilian aircraft for firefighting missions is also being considered,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The six planes poised to enter service Tuesday were being rented from the civilian aviation firm Chim-Nir.
Rescue officials also asked the government to seek international assistance. Foreign Ministry officials obtained commitments to help from Cyprus and Greece, the ministry said.
It was not immediately clear if the help would be needed, however.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the national fire and rescue apparatus, told reporters on Monday night, “I hope we won’t need the help. But yesterday at this hour we thought this was almost over, until the winds and low humidity in the morning” reignited the blaze.
Israel would call on that help only if conditions warranted it come Tuesday, though some rescue officials said the weather in the morning was expected to be hotter and drier than Monday’s, and the flames were expected to start spreading earlier.
On Monday afternoon, firefighters raced through the streets of villages like Givat Ye’arim in a race to evacuate residents as the fire entered the hilltop town.
At least 10 firefighting planes and several hundred firefighters were deployed to the area, working to form defensive lines around the enormous blaze. After the first defensive line was breached, firefighters tried to establish a new one near Ora and Aminadav, two villages touching on Jerusalem’s municipal boundary.
It was at that point, with the fire out of control and Jerusalem neighborhoods under threat, that Israel launched its appeal to nearby nations for help.
Israel has been sweltering under yet another heatwave, 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.”
A 32-year-old firefighter was injured near Shoresh on Sunday evening, and was treated at the scene before being transferred to Ichilov Medical Center in moderate condition.
A 25-year-old patient was found safe and sound Monday afternoon after he lost contact with others during the evacuation of the Eitanim psychiatric hospital, as flames approached the town of Givat Ye’arim. A second patient who had gone missing was located sometime before midnight Sunday, police said.
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.