A massive wildfire in the Jerusalem hills spread as far as the West Bank settlement of Mevo Horon on Friday evening, threatening to engulf homes and an industrial park and sending Israel’s already stretched firefighters scrambling to douse the flames.
Channel 2 News reported Friday evening that the firefighters were working primarily to stop the fire spreading further, and expected to continue throughout the night as strong winds threatened to push the flames outwards. The report said arson was suspected, but gave no further details.
A wave of forest and brush fires have cut a swath of destruction across Israel since Tuesday, and in several places entered residential areas.
The fire threatening Mevo Horon began earlier Friday in the Ma’ale Hahasmisha area of the Jerusalem hills, quickly reaching the nearby community of Nataf, where emergency services have been battling forest fires since Tuesday.
Nataf was evacuated for a third time Friday afternoon; the community’s renowned Rama restaurant was totally destroyed in the fire, as was part of the owner’s home.
Rama was hosting a wedding celebration Friday, until emergency personnel ordered guests to evacuate at around 3 p.m.
Multiple teams of firefighters were battling the flames around nearby Ma’ale Hahamisha into the night. About 150 firefighters remained in the Nataf area, with warnings that the north-west area of the community could still be at risk.
At least 20 planes were said to be operating in the area, dousing the flames from the skies.
By late night, most of the blazes in the Nataf area were said to be under control, but residents were told not to return home Friday night.
Initial suspicions are reportedly that the blaze was started by a petrol bomb thrown from the nearby Palestinian village of Katana. These reports have not been confirmed.
An earlier massive blaze in the Jerusalem hills overnight Thursday-Friday nearby devastated at least 10 homes and threatened to destroy the small village of Beit Meir.
At Dvira Forest in southern Israel, firefighters from Beersheba brought a fresh blaze under control Friday evening.
Another fire broke out in the Binyamina region of central Israel on Friday. Two teams of firefighters soon brought the blaze under control, Walla reported.
Early Friday, the village of Kaabiya in the Galilee saw flames from a nearby forest reach the edges of the community. Police evacuated five families, but said the move was a precaution, as firefighters expected to contain the blaze.
Another fire was reported early Friday between the Galilee Arab towns of Kabul and Tamra. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
There were many blazes in other parts of the country Thursday and throughout the night. In the evening, a fire broke out near Shuafat in East Jerusalem and two houses were evacuated. One firefighter was lightly injured near Sha’ar Hagai, close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Route 1 highway.
No one has been killed in the fires, but hundreds have been injured, dozens of homes burned and, in Haifa, tens of thousands were evacuated and hundreds of residences were damaged.
More than a dozen suspects have been arrested on suspicion of sparking at least some of the hundreds of fires that have threatened Israeli towns and forests. Among the suspects are several whom the Shin Bet domestic security service and police believe are responsible for starting some of the devastating fires that ripped through Haifa on Thursday.
Investigators have said a large portion of the blazes, as many as half by some accounts, have clearly been caused by accidents and/or the exceptionally dry and windy weather of the last few days, while some indicate arson, and still others are under investigation.
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich established a special investigative unit on Thursday to determine the cause of the fires and help locate arsonists. Earlier Thursday, he acknowledged arson “in some cases… presumably out of nationalistic motives.”