More than 70,000 people were forced out of their homes by the recent wave of fires that swept Israel, but no lives were lost thanks to local and foreign emergency personnel, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Tuesday at a ceremony at Hatzor air base in southern Israel to thank the departing foreign firefighters.
Firefighting planes from countries including Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, and the US helped dump tons of water and retardants on some of the fires that blazed across Israel for nearly a week, fanned by unseasonably dry easterly winds. The Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus and Italy also contributed personnel and equipment.
“The number [of casualties] was zero because of the bravery of the Israel Police and the firefighters, as well as are friends from abroad who arrived to help us in our time of need,” Erdan said.
The minister hailed the foreign crews who rushed to Israel for “carrying out your mission professionally and heroically, without hesitating to endanger your lives in order to save others,” Channel 10 reported.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to attend the event, but was advised by his doctor to stay home to rest and recover from a mild flu.
At the ceremony, Erdan also made reference to the suspected arson that was allegedly behind a number of the fires, saying that there is “zero tolerance” for “such behavior,” and that those involved will feel the full force of the law, Channel 10 reported.
“I have instructed the police to save no effort to identify these terrorists and bring them to justice. We will find anyone who tries to harm the well being and security of Israeli citizens,” Erdan said.
From November 18 to November 26, firefighters battled 1,773 brush fires around the country and the West Bank, according to Fire Services spokesman Yoram Levy.
The last of the major fires were doused Saturday, with only a few small blazes quickly extinguished since then.
“There are no active sites left,” Levy said on Sunday.
Most of the fires were caused by the weather and incidents of negligence, though officials have pointed to arson for at least some of them.
Police have arrested at least 35 people on suspicion of arson or incitement to arson.
Hardest hit has been Haifa, where 527 apartments were destroyed completely, leaving 1,600 people homeless, and from which tens of thousands of residents had to be evacuated as the flames threatened 11 neighborhoods.
Zichron Yaakov, the Jerusalem Hills and parts of the West Bank were also affected, with dozens of homes damaged or destroyed.
Tens of thousands of dunams of forest and scrubland were also burned.