Arsonists Torch Forests Near Haifa, Setting Worst Fire in Recent Years

A dense pall of smoke hung over Mount Carmel and the city of Haifa on Tuesday, as a giant forest fire attributed to Palestinian arsonists raged uncontrolled along the heavily wooded mountain range.

At least nine people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. None was reported in danger.

Hundreds of firefighters, police, soldiers and civilian volunteers battled the blaze, which was fanned by 50-mile winds. By unhappy coincidence, Israel was struck Tuesday by a Hamsin, the hot desert wind.

Light planes were pressed into service to pour water on the fire from above, while firefighters worked on the ground.

Nevertheless, the popular Nature Preserve at the Carmel summit was destroyed, with its unique collection of flora and fauna. Also burned out was a much frequented tourist area known as “Little Switzerland.”

Teams of foresters searched for tourists and vacationers who might have been trapped.

Students and employees of Haifa University were evacuated, as were children from Kibbutz Bet Oren, some miles south, where flames licked at the perimeter buildings.

Residents of the Haifa suburb of Danya also stood ready to evacuate if the fire reached them. Israel Defense Force helicopters hovered over inhabited areas in the path of the blaze.

Police and fire officials said the conflagration was clearly the work of arsonists with “nationalist” motivations. It was started at five or more separate points and swiftly spread to cover hundreds of acres.

Jewish National Fund officials said it was the worst fire in recent years. They predicted it would take years to repair the damage.

Arson linked to the Palestinian uprising has destroyed thousands of acres of forests in Israel over the last two summers.

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