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40 Confirmed Dead in Fire, Most Were on Prisons Service Bus, 15,000 Evacuated from Haifa Area

By, Ha'aretz &

As many as 36 security personnel, many from the Israel Prisons Service, are believed to have perished in the fire that has been raging on the Carmel Mountain all day Thursday. The total number of dead is estimated at 40 or 42. Video shot from Haifa:

The Israel Prison Service announced early on Friday morning that it has completed the process of notifying the families of the victims of the tragedy which has befallen them. Concurrently, the process of identifying bodies continues at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir. It was also reported that two policemen, a volunteer firefighter and another man were killed in the fire as well.

This is the largest and deadliest fire since Israel's founding in 1948, and possibly also the worst terror attack in its history, if suspicion of arson is confirmed. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Thursday evening that the fire on the Carmel range is "a disaster of a scope that we are not familiar with."

Most of the dead are reportedly IPS cadets, most of them Druze, who were in their 20s. They were being transported on a bus after assisting in the evacuation of the Damon Prison. At a certain point the fire began spreading at great speed – covering a mile in five minutes, according to a firefighting officer – and the bus was caught in the flames with no chance of getting out.

Minister of Public Security Yitzchak Aharonovich said Thursday evening that the fire is "currently under control," but Fire Services Spokesman Hezi Levy said the opposite. The fire, he said, is out of control and is raging in three major locations: the Druze village of Usefiya, Beit Oren, and Nir Etzion.

Residents of religious kibbutz Nir Etzion, the Ein Hod artists' village and the nearby Arab village Ein Hud have been instructed to leave their homes, after it was determined that the fire might reach the communities.

The residents of Kibbutz Beit Oren and Usefiyeh were evacuated earlier in the day, as were the students of Haifa University, which is somewhat further away. Several homes in Usefiya have been burnt to the ground. Haifa University has been closed down until further notice. The Brosh neighborhood in Tirat HaCarmel and a mental health hospital in Tirat HaCarmel may also be evacuated.

A resident of Beit Oren told Channel 2 news that several homes in the kibbutz burned down. Firefighters' spokesman Levy called Beit Oren "the former kibbutz of Beit Oren" in an evening interview, and said most of the homes in the community had been damaged.

Channel 2 reporter Yossi Mizrachi said that the way in which the fire spread indicated that the blaze erupted from three locations simultaneously -- making arson a likely possibility.

The fire broke out around 10 a.m. Thursday in an illegal garbage dump in the Carmel Mountains. Ongoing rescue and fire-fighting efforts are said to be nearly impossible given the physical conditions of the mountains, smoke, dry conditions and winds.

The trapped bus is said to have departed from the Damon Prison, apparently as part of the attempt to evacuate the prison in the face of the fast-spreading fire. The Damon jail mostly holds Arabs who were caught illegally entering Israel from the Palestinian Authority. According to IDF Radio, however, the bus was "not a prisoner bus."

The Head of the Samaria local authority, Gershon Mesika, informed Welfare Minister Yitzchak Herzog that the authority is prepared to absorb large numbers of evacuees from the fire in the Carmel. The Samaria local authority prepared plans 18 months ago for absorbing half a million evacuees in wartime. The plan was rehearsed during the large Home Front drill this summer.

"The residents of Samaria will be happy to host and to receive with a loving hug every evacuated citizen," Mesika said. "In the past, Samaria residents took into their homes residents of bombarded cities during the Gulf War, the Second Lebanon War and Cast Lead and we will be glad to do so again now," he added.

Air Force bases in northern Israel began on Thursday evening to prepare for the arrival of aircraft from European countries which have announced their intention to help in putting out the blaze in the Carmel. The IDF Airbase at Ramat David, southeast of Haifa, will be the main base that will absorb the aid planes from Greece and Cyprus. Air Force planes were also preparing to leave for Egypt, due to the possibility that Egypt might supply Israel with fire extinguishing materials.

IDF Radio reported on Thursday evening that unmanned aircraft are constantly being flown to the area to help direct the ground forces. Helicopters are also on the scene and are illuminating the blaze area.

It was also announced that, in addition to the countries that have already announced that they will be sending aid, Turkey and Egypt may send aircraft to help put out the fire. Yossi Regev, head of the special Task Force which was opened after the fire, said that seven foreign aircraft will be making their way to Israel over the next few hours: four from Greece, two from Azerbaijan and one from Cyprus. In addition, Four aircraft are expected from France, two or three from Russia, and two from Spain.

Turkish officials in Washington said Thursday that Turkey has offered to send Israel two firefighting aircraft to help control the huge brushfire that has been raging through northern Israel. "Israel has accepted the offer and ours was, I guess, one of the first governments to offer help," the spokesperson of the Turkish embassy in the United States told Ha'aretz.

Turkey's offer comes as its relations with Israel have deteriorated in recent years and reached a low point last May when nine Turkish citizens were killed as Israeli naval commandos boarded a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Haifa mayor Yonah Yahav spoke of the massive fire saying that "the flames spread on a scale we've never seen." In an interview with Army Radio, he added that "all emergency forces are on the highest alert, and we have established a safe area for evacuees; I hope that we won't have to use it."

Immigrant Absorption Ministry Director General Dimitry Apartsev, who arrived at Tirat Carmel, said: "This is an emergency and we're here to help. The minister wanted to come here immediately, but we just calmed her down and told her there's no need. We bought with us Russian and Amharic speakers to help the police and security forces communicate with residents who are new immigrants. I just spoke with the mayor and told him we'll do anything we can to help."

Haifa firefighter teams made a desperate plea to all fire brigades in Israel to help contain the fire. "The war on the Carmel is the war on the State of Israel," Reshef Levy from Haifa said. "The work will last days. These are crazy fire sites."

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