UPDATED @ 4:00 p.m. MT, December 2, 2010
A fire in Israel has killed about 40 people.
A massive brushfire, the worst in Israel’s history, raged unchecked for more than eight hours Thursday, burning thousands of acres of land, forcing villages to evacuate, and killing up to 40 people when their bus was engulfed in flames. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the blaze as “a catastrophe, the likes of which we have not yet known”.
He appealed to Russia, Cyprus, Greece and Italy for help in putting out the fire, which began on the slopes of the Carmel hill, southeast of Israel’s port city of Haifa, and rapidly spread.
Cyprus and Greece agreed to dispatch firefighting helicopters.
Some nine hours after the blaze was estimated to have begun exhausted firefighters, those from Haifa reinforced by teams from all over Israel, and by soldiers, were still struggling to bring it under control, but without success.
“We’ve lost control of the fire,” a spokesman for Haifa’s firefighting services was quoted as saying.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said it was impossible to say when the fire could be brought under control. However, firefighters were speculated that as the fire spread west a major road linking Haifa with Tel Aviv to the south could act as a natural firebreak, or, failing that, the sea would.
At least 22 people were confirmed dead, but other accounts put the number as high as 40.
The fatalities were prison guards who had been drafted to help evacuate the 500 prisoners from a jail in the path of the flames. Their bus, with 50 people on board, was trapped by a falling tree and 40 of them burned to death. The others were injured.
The fire had been far from the road when the bus first set off, but spread about 1,500 metres in less than three minutes.
This video is not in English, but the pictures tell much of the story.