Fire in northern Israel is deemed under control


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The forest fire in northern Israel that claimed 42 lives and destroyed thousands of acres of land is under control, Israeli officials said.

Considered to be Israel’s largest civilian disaster, the fire was brought under control late Sunday afternoon, some 77 hours after it erupted, according to reports. Israeli firefighters will remain in place to prevent the blaze from reigniting.

Earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had halted the arrival of more planes from other countries, saying they were not needed. 

During a special meeting Sunday in Tirat HaCarmel, a community evacuated Thursday hours after the fire broke out, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told the Cabinet that "we are at the final hurdle."

Israel’s firefighting efforts were assisted by 35 airplanes, including 24 from other countries. The American "Evergreen" Boeing 747 Super Tanker arrived Sunday morning and immediately was put into action with its 80,000 liters of water and fire retardant. 

During Sunday’s meeting, Netanyahu called on his government to cut through bureaucracy in an effort to rebuild homes, towns and businesses damaged in the fire. The Finance Ministry announced at the meeting that it would budget $16.5 million to provide infrastructure for the rebuilding effort. The government gave the ministry a week to come up with a rehabilitation plan.

Also Sunday, two teenage brothers from the Druze village of Ussfiya arrested Saturday on suspicion of starting the fire were ordered held for four more days by a Haifa court. The teens are accused of lighting a bonfire near their home Thursday morning that sparked the blaze.

Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen told reporters that incidents of arson had occurred at several locations Friday.

Meanwhile, funerals were held over the weekend throughout Israel for the prison guard cadets killed when their bus trapped Thursday by burning trees was engulfed in flames, burning alive most of its passengers. The guards were on their way to a nearby prison to carry out an inmate evacuation. Two firefighters who rushed to rescue the guards and a 16-year-old volunteer also were killed.

All of the bodies were identified, many using DNA technology, by Saturday night.

At least 17,000 Israelis were evacuated from the area of the blaze, which spread near Haifa. The University of Haifa, which was evacuated Thursday, has served as a staging ground for emergency personnel.

Aid poured in from countries as near as Turkey, Cyprus and Greece, and as far away as the United States and Russia.

Since the blaze began, Israelis have been gripped by images of flames consuming forested areas in the mountains east of Haifa, residents watching their homes burn and footage of the scorched shell of the bus in which the prison guards were killed.

(To donate to the fire relief effort, click here.)

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