Wildfires in Israel force tens of thousands to evacuate

Firefighters have been battling a rash of fires since November 21.

Since Monday November 21 many wildfires have broken out in Israel, forcing 60,000 residents to flee from the coastal city of Haifa as the fire spread into the center of the metropolis.

Normally this time of the year the country would be entering their rainy season but the fires are occurring during a two-month drought. The situation has been worsened this week by strong dry winds making the fires more resistant to control.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, told reporters that almost half the fires were the result of arson. The term “pyro-terrorism” has been thrown around loosely in various articles, but that has not been confirmed by an authoritative source.

The fires slowed on Friday enabling some evacuees to return to their homes.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Air Force is using 10 drones to detect fires and spot suspected arsonists.

The 747 Supertanker has been contracted by the Israeli government and after a 12.5-hour non-stop flight landed in Tel Aviv at about 10:25 a.m. MST on Friday.

Global Supertanker Services sent two complete flight crews with the air tanker, President and CEO Jim Wheeler said. Each crew consists of two pilots and a drop system operator. In addition there were four maintenance and ground personnel, one supervisor, and Bob Soelberg, Program Manager for Global Supertanker, who will liaise with the Israeli government.

747 Supertanker
The 747 Supertanker at its home base in Colorado Springs, May 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The 747 can drop retardant, foam, gel, or other fire suppressants.

This is not the first time a Supertanker has mobilized to Israel. In December 2010 the first generation of the aircraft dropped on the Mt. Carmel Fire in which 44 prison guards in a bus were killed after being trapped by the fire. The supertanker was one of 30 firefighting aircraft that were dispatched at that time from countries all over the world, including six Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tankers from the U.S. military. The assistance from the MAFFS was approved and arranged late in the incident. Some never took off and others were turned around at a refueling stop in the Azores.

Since the deadly Mt. Carmel fire Israel has substantially beefed up their fire aviation resources and now have 14 Single Engine Air Tankers under contract supplied by Elbit Systems and Chim Nir Flight Services. The SEATs have their place in the firefighter’s tool box, but the 747 carries far more than all of their SEATs combined.

In June Israel loaned three of their SEATs to Cyprus to help suppress large fires near Paphos and Evrychou. Now they are on the receiving end as firefighting aircraft are arriving from the U.S., Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Italy, and Turkey. In addition, Russia sent two water scooping Be-200 air tankers. One can be seen scooping in the video at the top of the page.

In spite of a report in a major east coast newspaper, the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center has not received any orders for firefighting resources. But, according to BLM spokesperson Randall Eardley, there have been some discussions about crew availability. Jessica Gardetto of the BLM said the Pentagon has inquired about the process for sending assistance internationally.

The weather forecast for Tel Aviv calls for warm, dry, and sunny weather through the weekend with 6 to 8 mph winds out of the northeast and relative humidities in the teens. For the 7 days after that the humidity will 33 to 57 percent with stronger winds on Wednesday through Friday.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

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