Some sixty thousand people were evacuated from their homes in Haifa Thursday as a wave of wildfires threatened the bay metropolis, bolstered by high winds and dry conditions that have contributed to a spate of blazes across the country this week.
Residents of a total of 11 neighborhoods in the city were told to leave their homes, as fires in at least five locations consumed homes and businesses. By late afternoon, more than 100 people in the Haifa area had been treated for fire-related injuries, mostly smoke inhalation.
Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich said some of the fires were set by arsonists, “presumably with nationalist motives,” but most were not. He said some suspects were in custody. Top Arab MK Ayman Odeh called the arsonists “enemies of us all.”
Greece, Russia, Cyprus and Turkey were among the nations that sent firefighting planes and other equipment to help fight the fires.
During the afternoon another brush fire broke out in the Horeshim Forest in the Sharon region. The nearby community of Nirit was evacuated.
A fire that started at the Sha’ar Hagai Junction, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was reportedly sweeping toward a gas station in the area, and Modiin’s two train stations were closed due to a blaze in the central-region city. Earlier, police had briefly closed Route 443, the main approach road to Modiin, due to a fire in the area.
“The fire is not under control; residents should quickly evacuate,” the Haifa fire chief said, as eyewitnesses described firefighters having little success in checking the onslaught of the flames.
Firefighting planes from several countries were being brought in and the army’s Home Front Command called in soldiers and rescuers to aid with the effort.
In the Haifa’s Romema neighborhood, a large apartment tower was seen going up in flames.
Houses and a kindergarten in Haifa’s Ramot Sapir neighborhood were evacuated, police said, as the city’s entire fire service tried to control a blaze threatening to spread from the surrounding forests into the suburb.
Israeli TV broadcast pictures of paramedics frantically moving elderly people out of a nursing home in the Romema neighborhood of Haifa as black smoke billowed overhead.
Firefighters also worked to try and keep flames from nearing a gas station close to the city’s Paz bridge. Route 22 running through the area was closed.
The Magen David Adom rescue service said 36 people had been treated for injuries by early afteroon, a number that continued to rise through the day; 35 of those were lightly hurt and one war hospitalized in moderate condition.
“We’re in a state of war,” Haifa fire service spokesman Uri Chibutro told Channel 2 news.
Major traffic jams were reported as residents in affected neighborhoods attempted to move to safer ground.
Earlier, an Israel fire service spokesman told The Times of Israel arson was suspected in Haifa based on circumstantial evidence, but nothing had been confirmed.
Firefighters have been struggling since Tuesday to keep pace with a spate of brush fires that have popped up around the country, several of which have damaged homes and put people in the hospital for smoke inhalation.
In the West Bank settlement of Talmon, residents were also evacuated Thursday, along with 300 pupils of a local school, as flames encroached on buildings, police said.
Several cars and structures in the Ramallah-area settlement have already suffered serious damage, according to police. On Wednesday, a fire broke out between the settlement and the neighboring settlement of Dolev, though firefighters said early Thursday that the blaze had been brought under control.
In Porat, outside the coastal city of Netanya, another brush fire was reported Thursday afternoon.
A fire was also reported close to the Israel Electric Corporation’s huge coal-fired power station in coastal Hadera. Firefighters said the outbreak was under control.
On Thursday morning, firefighting airplanes from Greece and Cyprus arrived in Israel to join the effort, with more planes expected from Turkey, Croatia, Italy and Russia after Israel requested international aid.
Four planes — two Bombadiers and a Hercules from Greece and an air tractor from Cyprus — and 49 crew members arrived Thursday morning. The planes are able to carry larger amounts of fire retardant than local aircraft.
Along with the international aid, the IDF Home Front Command’s Kedem Battalion was been called in to help with the evacuations in the Mount Carmel area, an IDF spokesperson said.
In addition, firefighter reservists in the Home Front Command have also been called up to assist in battling the blazes around the country.
In 2010, the Haifa region was ravaged by a massive wildfire that spread across the Carmel forest, killing 44 people, most of them Prison Service cadets trapped on a bus after trying to evacuate inmates from a nearby prison. The fire, the deadliest natural disaster in Israel’s history, led to wide-ranging reforms in the firefighting service.
Earlier Thursday, fires broke out near the Shilat Junction at the northern entrance to Modiin, with police briefly shutting Route 443, one of two main highways connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, creating a major traffic headache for morning commuters.
Firefighters managed to gain control of the fire by mid-morning.
Firefighters also battled to control blazes sweeping from the community of Neve Ilan toward Route 1, the other major artery into the capital, at the Sha’ar Hagai junction.
The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court meanwhile threw out a case brought by police against four workers suspected of negligently starting a fire to heat coffee and causing a blaze in Nataf, outside Jerusalem, on Wednesday. The four were released.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was evidence some of the flames had been started intentionally and Education Minister Naftali Bennett seemed to point at a nationalistic motive for the fires.
Police say they are investigating the cause of the fires, including the possibility of nationalistically motivated arson.