A massive wildfire continued to burn through the wooded hillsides outside Jerusalem early Monday, but fire officials said homes in the area were no longer in danger, with only a few hotspots left.
Officials said firefighters had managed to get enough of the blaze under control to ensure that there was no immediate danger to homes in the area, even as they continued to battle a fire thought to be the biggest in the Jerusalem area in years.
A 25-year-old patient was found safe and sound Monday afternoon after he was missing since losing 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 following the blaze, 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 unless necessary.
As firefighting planes restarted their work on Monday morning after being grounded for the night, Fire and Rescue Commissioner Dedi Simchi said investigators believed the blaze had been started by humans, but it was not yet clear if it was negligence or arson.
“This is a manmade fire, whether it was intentionally criminal or negligent,” Simchi said.
Jerusalem District Commander Nissim Twito told the Kan public broadcaster that he believed the blaze would be under control by the afternoon.
“The fire is not over yet, but we are allowing residents to return to their homes,” Twito said. “The crews have worked all night and I believe we will finish by the afternoon.”
The Jerusalem fire chief said there were still a number of locations where fires were burning but there was no immediate danger to residents.
“There are still five active fires, but it is not endangering any residents for now,” Jerusalem fire chief Shlomi Ben Yair told Army Radio early Monday. “We’re focusing on aid efforts for emergency services and for families evacuated from their homes.”
The Fire and Rescue Service said Monday that 17,000 dunams (6.5 square miles) had been damaged in the fire, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
The fire forced at least 10,000 people to flee from six towns west of the capital: Beit Meir, Ksalon, Ramat Raziel, Shoresh, Sho’eva and Givat Ye’arim.
Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman told the Kan public broadcaster that residents of Sho’eva and Shoresh had been given the okay to return home during the night, and those from other towns would be given the all-clear in the next few hours. He said police were prepared for the possibility that the fires could spark back up.
Later in the morning, police said Ksalon residents and the Eitanim hospital staff were given the okay to return as well.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said late Sunday evening that firefighters were making progress, but expressed concerns that winds could push the flames toward neighborhoods in Jerusalem’s western outskirts.
“The fire is moving slowly eastward and therefore we are disturbed by the potential for harm to the area of Ein Kerem and Aminadav and communities on the western side of Jerusalem,” he said during a visit to some of the affected areas with fire officials late Sunday.
“At this time, we appear to be heading in a positive direction in terms of controlling the flames,” Bennett said shortly after 11 p.m. “But it must be said, it’s not over until it’s over.”
Firefighters began battling the blaze early Sunday afternoon, but hot and dry weather conditions fanned the flames, causing extensive damage to the area, including to a number of homes and businesses
Twito said Sunday that 60-70 firefighting teams and 12 planes and helicopters were deployed to battle the flames.
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.
The Mateh Yehuda Regional Council said in a statement that most of the damage had been centered near Ramat Raziel, though it was too early to begin to survey the area.
Zohar, a resident of Ramat Raziel, told the Walla website that four homes in the town caught fire and suffered significant damage.
???????? The huge forest fire west of #Jerusalem now. Thousands are being evacuated from the villages and communities in its path. 10 fire fighting planes and firemen from across the country are battling the blaze thats out of control. #PrayForJerusalem pic.twitter.com/lBoGgpwMo1
— Eretz Israel (@EretzIsrael) August 15, 2021
Eliyahu Bash, CEO of the Metsudah Winery in Givat Ye’arim, told the Walla news site that the winery was completely destroyed in the blaze.
“It’s completely gone, there isn’t even a cork left,” said Bash. “The entire building went up in flames, there isn’t a single thing left,” he said, noting that there were 30,000 bottles awaiting wine that were destroyed. “But we’ll get back up and we’ll be even better, and that’s it.”
Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the military to assist firefighters in battling the blaze, his office said.
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 Jerusalem Hills, west of the capital.
Sunday’s fire was the second major blaze in the area this month.
A fire on August 3 forced dozens of people to evacuate their homes. Despite the ongoing heatwave, the local fire chief said that blaze was likely started by people, rather than the weather.
In June, several fires broke out in areas near Jerusalem, forcing the evacuation of homes, with authorities suspecting that the blazes had been set deliberately by Palestinians.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.