HAIFA, Israel (AP) – A wildfire roared through parts of Israel’s third-largest city on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and prompting a rare call-up of hundreds of military reservists to join overstretched police and firefighters.
Spreading quickly due to dry, windy weather, the fire raced through Haifa’s northern neighborhoods. While there were no serious injuries, several dozen people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
Police and firefighters were deployed throughout the city, as people loaded up supermarket carts with belongings and fled their homes. Some people connected hoses together from apartment buildings to help battle the fires, while residents held cloth over their faces.
The blaze was the largest of several fires to erupt across the country in recent days. The rash of fires is the worst since 2010, when Israel suffered the single deadliest wildfire in its history. That blaze burned out of control for four days, killed 42 people and was extinguished only after firefighting aircraft arrived from as far away as the United States.
Israel has strengthened its firefighting abilities since then, buying special planes that can drop large quantities of water on affected areas. Several countries, including Russia, Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia and Greece – were also sending assistance to battle this week’s blazes.
Guy Catlan, who runs a gas station in Haifa, told Channel 10 TV that workers turned the power off and were helping firefighters to prevent flames from reaching it. “There is a very large quantity of fuel here, it is very dangerous to the entire area, it could be a big catastrophe,” he said.
Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were investigating all possible causes for the wildfires, including arson. Residents of eight neighborhoods in the northern city of Haifa were told to evacuate their homes on Thursday afternoon, he said. Rosenfeld did not know how many people were affected, but media reports said tens of thousands live in the affected areas.
The military said it deployed two search and rescue battalions in order to assist civilian efforts. It also called up about 500 reserve soldiers to back up the police and fire departments.
Several roads and schools were closed in some areas of Haifa. Mayor Yonah Yahav told Channel 2 TV there were several fires in his city.
Yahav also said there were indications one of the fires was caused when “someone tossed a cigarette in an area full of oil and flammable fluids” in an industrial zone.
A spokesman for Israel’s fire and rescue service, Yoram Levy, told the station that firefighters were working around the clock. He said the fires in Haifa “are probably arson,” and that there was an attempt to torch a fire station.
Police said the blazes started early Tuesday morning at Neve Shalom, a community outside Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together. Fires later erupted elsewhere near Jerusalem and in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, thanking him for his help in dealing with the fires. The premier’s office said Thursday that Russia is sending two large firefighting aircraft to Israel.