ISFIYA, (AFP) — The massive fire ripping through northern Israel was still incinerating swathes of land on Saturday, with little sign that Israeli and foreign firefighters were winning the battle to contain it.
With 41 people dead and more than 17,000 people evacuated from their homes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to bring in more international forces to join those already working to battle the biggest inferno in Israel’s history.
As the fire raged for a third straight day, Israel’s fire and rescue chief Shimon Romeah said they were still some way off from harnessing the blaze.
“At this stage, we are still far from controlling the fire. It is not us controlling the fire, the fire which is controlling us,” he told army radio.
“In many areas where we thought we had finished, the fire has reappeared. And it is starting up in places we thought we had saved, despite our efforts to contain it.”
Police said the blaze had destroyed homes in three areas overnight: in the artists village of Ein Hod, in Nir Etzion and in youth village Yemin Hod, all of which had already been evacuated.
As dawn broke, around 10 international water bombers resumed their work, flying sorties over the towering flames. They were backed up by a recently arrived Russian aircraft capable of dropping 42,000 litres (9,200 gallons) of water at a single pass.
Smaller planes also swooped over the blaze, dumping gallons of fire retardent in the hope of cutting off the flames which are raging through a pine forest and nature reserve just outside the northern port city of Haifa.
Meanwhile on the ground, more than 550 firefighters continued their efforts round the clock to tame the blaze — around 450 Israelis backed up by some 100 firemen from Bulgaria and a number from Jordan.
In the Druze village of Isfiya, hundreds of residents, many wearing pyjamas and flipflops, stood on rooftops and balconies, silently watching as the towering flames licked their way towards the village, an AFP correspondent said.
Overhead, small planes ran multiple sorties, dumping clouds of orange fire retardant in the hope of boxing in the flames, he said.
With 41 people dead, and 17 injured, one of them critically, officials said there were still four people listed as missing.
By nightfall on Friday, the fire had incinerated more than 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of land, with flames reaching the southern outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city.
As offers of international help poured in, with some 16 countries pledging assistance, Netanyahu asked for further reinforcements from Belgium, Finland, Germany, Norway and The Netherlands.
Planes and helicopters from Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Britain and Russia are already engaged in the massive operation. Later on Saturday, reinforcements were due to arrive from the United States, Spain, Italy, Romania, Switzerland, France, Croatia and Azerbaijan, the foreign ministry said.
In a phone call overnight, US President Barack Obama promised to send 45 tonnes of fire retardant as well as 12,000 litres of class A foam, along with a team of experts with fire fighting equipment, a White House aide said.
The Pentagon is also mobilising National Guard troops and assets equipped with targeted fire-fighting systems to help Israel fight the fire.
And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered to mobilise international help, saying the fire was a terrible tragedy.
Police chief Dudi Cohen confirmed late on Friday that the blaze had broken out in one location, saying investigators were still looking at whether it was an accidental or arson.