Foreign crews help Israel battle massive forest fire

Firefighters battled the blaze through the night

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Foreign firefighting crews have begun to arrive in Israel to help battle a massive forest fire out of control in the north of the country.

Further global assistance is due to arrive later on Friday, as fire crews battled high winds driving the blaze towards the city of Haifa.

At least 41 people have died and scores have been injured in what is thought to be the country's largest forest fire.

At least 13,000 people, including prison inmates, have been evacuated.

Aircraft from Bulgaria, Jordan, Greece and the UK have arrived, after Israel issued a rare request for foreign assistance.

At the scene

In the Carmel mountains the air is thick with smoke. A strong sun, hot for December, struggles to break through. About 1km away flames can be seen licking the tree tops, driven on by a fierce wind.

From above comes the constant hum of aircraft as firefighting planes scoop water from the Mediterranean to dump on the blaze. Where the fire has already passed, the charred and blackened ground still smoulders.

Thousands are being forced to leave their homes and businesses. Some are being threatened with arrest if they don't leave.

They can be seen sitting by the road, staring across the valleys to where they once lived. They don't know what will be left when they return. Many here are already questioning the government's readiness for forest fires.

Planes from Cyprus, Turkey and Russia were on their way, while flame-retardant materials were being flown in from France, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.

"The Russians are sending and we are waiting for the biggest firefighting plane in the world... an Antonov with huge firefighting capacity," he told Israel Radio.

He said he hoped the fire could be contained by Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the blaze as an "unprecedented disaster".

He convened an emergency session of the cabinet in Tel Aviv on Friday morning and afterwards thanked countries for their help.

"I think this symbolises an unprecedented response to our request for international help," he said.

Correspondents said he made a special point of thanking Turkey, which put aside recent diplomatic strains to send assistance.

Mr Netanyahu then left to visit the injured and inspect the firefighting effort.

Israeli media have criticised the government's lack of readiness.

Time lapse footage of forest fires (courtesy of Haifa University Geography Dept)

Ben Caspit, a commentator in the Maariv daily, said: "A country above which hover spy satellites, a country to which foreign sources attribute chilling military operations... is also the country that has its firefighting material run out after seven hours, a country whose fire trucks date back to the previous century, and a country that therefore finds itself caught, standing before the flames, with its pants down."

Israel has been experiencing a period of drought, suffering its driest November in 60 years.

'Sad, incomprehensible day'

Most of those killed in the blaze were prison guards travelling on a bus sent to help evacuate Damon prison.

The bus was trapped in the inferno by a fallen tree in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa - Israel's third largest city.

A fire brigade spokesman told the Jerusalem Post that the flames had travelled 1,500m (4,920ft) in less than three minutes.

"The bus had no chance. They tried to escape but were burned alive. It was a horrific scene," the spokesman told the newspaper.

He called it a "difficult, sad and incomprehensible day".

Sixteen people remain in hospital, including the police chief of Haifa, who is said to be in a critical condition. Three others were seriously injured, police said. There were no reported injuries among prison inmates.

Israel fires

US President Barack Obama sent condolences and offered assistance.

"As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster," he said.

The BBC's Jon Donnison in the region says Israel's emergency services have not had to handle an operation on such a scale since the war in Lebanon in 2006.

The fire broke out about midday (1000 GMT) on Thursday.

It is believed to have started in an illegal landfill site, investigators said, although it was not clear if it was accidental or deliberate.

"We have had several fires in the last 10 to 12 years but nothing like this," Erez Geller, a paramedic supervisor from the ambulance service, said on Thursday.

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