Israel battles new wave of wildfires on hottest day of the year
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PM thanks countries for help, says challenge still ahead

Israel battles new wave of wildfires on hottest day of the year

15 treated for smoke inhalation as blaze nears settlement, prompting evacuations; Israelis told to stay away from nature reserves, forests; electrical fault blamed for some fires

  • Firefighters extinguish the remains of a fire in Kibbutz Harel, on May 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
    Firefighters extinguish the remains of a fire in Kibbutz Harel, on May 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
  • Houses badly damaged by fire amidst extreme heat wave are pictured in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Houses badly damaged by fire amidst extreme heat wave are pictured in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • An Israeli flag is pictured in front of vehicles that were badly damaged by a fire amidst extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    An Israeli flag is pictured in front of vehicles that were badly damaged by a fire amidst extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Israeli firefighters check a house that was badly damaged by a fire amid an extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Israeli firefighters check a house that was badly damaged by a fire amid an extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modi'im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Candle holders are scattered in a house that was badly damaged by fire amidst extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modiim, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Candle holders are scattered in a house that was badly damaged by fire amidst extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modiim, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Fire engulfing a building in Mevo Modi'im on May 23, 2019. (screen capture: Ynet)
    Fire engulfing a building in Mevo Modi'im on May 23, 2019. (screen capture: Ynet)
  • Firefighters survey damage from a fire in Kibbutz Harel, on May 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
    Firefighters survey damage from a fire in Kibbutz Harel, on May 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Wildfires raged across Israel on Friday for the second day in a row, as officials warned the public to stay away from parks and forests and an initial investigation indicated an electrical short sparked some of the blazes on Thursday.

Gripped by unseasonably scorching weather, a spate of fires across the country on Thursday devastated towns and forests, forcing thousands out of their homes.

The fires picked up again on Friday afternoon, when residents of Neguhot in the South Hebron Hills were evacuated by authorities after a wildfire threatened the settlement. The Israel Fire and Rescue Services later announced firefighters were able to contain the blaze and residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Fifteen people were being treated for smoke inhalation in Neguhot, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, one of whom was hospitalized.

Firefighters successfully extinguished a second fire raging near the West Bank settlement of Peduel, one of whose neighborhoods was evacuated. The Fire and Rescue Services said four firefighting planes worked to put out the fire.

Several firefighting teams, including four planes, were working to contain a large blaze near Moshav Shahar, near Ashkelon. Other teams were on the ground in the Jordan Valley and central Israel’s Modi’in Illit.

Four Palestinian firefighting teams were assisting Israeli responders, the Fire and Rescue Services said.

In Moshav Beit Ezra, near the southern city of Ashdod, some residents were evacuated as a wheat field adjacent to the community went up in flames. Firefighters were able to get control of the fire, which was put out with the help of a helicopter sent by Egypt.

A firefighter was lightly injured while working to extinguish the blaze by a gas tank that exploded, the Ynet news site reported. He suffered second degree burns and was taken to the hospital for further treatment.

Firefighter planes work to put out a fire near Kibbutz Harel, May 24, 2019. (Flash90)

Further south, a number of families in Moshav Yakhini were evacuated from their homes due to a fire that broke out nearby. Responders from Fire and Rescue Services were working to prevent the fire from approaching the community.

Authorities suspected that an incendiary balloon from Gaza started the blaze.

In the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, residents of three apartment buildings were ordered to leave their homes due to a nearby brushfire.

The fire service on Friday said some of the blazes in southern Israel, and those that ravaged homes in Kibbutz Harel on Thursday, were apparently started as a result of the shorting of Israel Electric Company cables, according to a preliminary investigation.

Investigators were still working to pinpoint the source of a fire that ripped through the central town of Mevo Modi’im, destroying much of the community. Firefighters picked through the charred shells of homes and cars on Friday in the village founded by musician Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

View of the damage caused from a forest fire in Mevo Modi’im, on May 24, 2019. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

The outbreak came as Jewish Israelis marked the Lag B’Omer holiday on Thursday — which is usually celebrated with bonfires, though most were restricted this year due to the weather warnings — fueling speculation that bonfires gone awry were the source of the crisis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday applauded the firefighting and rescue services for their “excellent” handling of the fires, while warning “the challenge is still ahead of us.”

“I would like to thank the firefighters and the pilots who are doing very hard work. I ask the citizens of Israel to obey the instructions to refrain from traveling. Our mission is to save lives,” Netanyahu said.

Authorities were reportedly mulling declaring a national emergency Friday over fire fears. Temperatures were expected to reach a sweltering 110ºF (43ºC) in some areas between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Dead Sea and Jordan Valley are expected to see even higher temperatures, including an egg-frying 118ºF (48ºC) at the lowest place on earth.

With air conditioners working overtime, the Israel Electric Corporation said electricity use Friday afternoon set an all-time record for the month of May and for a Friday, with demand peaking at 12,036 megawatts.

The IEC noted electricity use usually drops on Fridays, a day off from work for many Israelis. Friday evenings also mark the start of Shabbat, when observant Jews refrain from working or turning on electric appliances.

International help to stem the fires, meanwhile, was on its way.

An Israeli flag is pictured in front of vehicles that were badly damaged by a fire amidst extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modi’im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Cyprus ground firefighting units arrived in Israel on Friday morning, and the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that a delegation from Cyprus, including aircraft, arrived at the Tel Nof military base Friday evening. Air support from Greece, Croatia and Italy was expected in Israel later in the day. The international help came after Netanyahu put out an urgent plea for aid in battling the blazes.

Netanyahu on Friday also thanked Egypt for sending two helicopters to back Israel’s firefighting efforts, and said the Palestinian Authority and Russia were among those that offered assistance.

The prime minister also said he was considering expanding Israel’s squadron of firefighting planes.

Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan were briefed on the damage by firefighting and rescue officials.

Firefighters worked all day Thursday to gain control over a series of wildfires that broke out in the Ben Shemen forest outside the central city of Modi’in, and in other communities in wooded areas west of Jerusalem. The head of Fire and Rescue Services called up all firefighters in the central region in view of the large number of blazes in the area.

Dozens of homes were reportedly burned and some 3,500 people were forced from their homes by the fires.

The village of Mevo Modi’im, inside the Ben Shemen forest east of the Tel Aviv area, saw some of the worst damage.

View of the damage caused from a forest fire in Mevo Modi’im, on May 24, 2019. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Pictures and videos showed a massive wall of flame sweeping through the community and many of the small town’s homes destroyed by fire. All but 10 of the village’s homes were badly damaged by the fire, according to the Ynet news site.

Much of the surrounding woodland was also ravaged, with a number of other small towns in the area being evacuated, and Route 443, a major highway running from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed for much of Thursday and into Friday.

Over 500 acres of woodland have burned, said Nitai Zecharya, an Israeli official from the Jewish National Fund, known for planting forests in the country.

Zecharya said that while firefighters had brought most of the blaze under control, officials remained “very stressed” about strong winds fanning flames and “spreading fires to other fronts.”

Wooded areas outside the city of Beit Shemesh also saw an outbreak of fires, with at least six homes in Kibbutz Harel destroyed.

“Already as of yesterday, it was impossible to enter. I left the children and tried to reach our house to save at least one of our dogs,” a resident of Kibbutz Harel told the Walla news site.

“They would not let me in, but someone else broke into our house and let the pets out. In the afternoon I went into the house and saw that I no longer had anything, just what I was wearing. There was nothing left. The cats were gone, and one dog too. We’re currently trying to fetch another dog that apparently has been roaming around. We told the children that the home is gone along with their toys and clothes.”

Officials fear Friday may see Palestinian attempts to start fires in the Gaza border region, through the use of airborne incendiary devices.

Firefighters battle a blaze near Kibbutz Harel in central Israel, May 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The balloon terror may get worse tomorrow depending on the wind direction, after a few of their attempts failed today,” a fire official in the region told Army Radio.

In the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, a fire damaged an electric pole, cutting electricity to much of the city overnight and leaving sweating residents and tourists without air conditioning, according to the Ynet news site. Temperatures in the area on Friday are expected to rocket to 107ºF (42ºC).

The mercury is expected to fall Saturday to more seasonable temperatures, though still hotter than average.

In 2016, wildfires damaged or destroyed around 700 homes in Israel and the West Bank, and sent more than 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of woodland up in smoke.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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