Haifa blaze subdued as crews battle more fires

Haifa blaze subdued as crews battle more fires
A burned house following wildfires in Haifa, Israel. Picture: AP

Israeli firefighters have reined in a blaze that had spread across the country's third-largest city of Haifa and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, but continued to battle more than a dozen other fires around the country.

Some of the 60,000 evacuated people began trickling back to their charred homes to assess the damage as police and firefighting units remained heavily deployed in the Haifa area for fear that the fire could be reignited by dry, windy weather.

Though no serious injuries were caused, several dozen people were treated in hospital for smoke inhalation.

Hundreds of homes were damaged and in a rare move, Israel called up military reservists to join overstretched police and firefighters and made use of an international fleet of firefighting aircraft sent by several countries.

A Boeing 747-400 Supertanker, the world's largest firefighting aircraft, capable of carrying 75 tons of fire retardant, is scheduled to arrive to help the efforts, though officials said it may not be needed by then.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a small village in the forests near Jerusalem was evacuated overnight as several homes caught fire. Other small fires were under control, he added.

Mr Rosenfeld said 12 people have been arrested across Israel on suspicion of arson. The country's leaders have raised the possibility that Arab assailants intentionally set the blazes.

Israel has been on edge during more than a year of Palestinian attacks - mostly stabbings - that have tapered off but not completely halted in recent months.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian incitement for fuelling those attacks.

Israel's police chief Roni Alsheich told reporters that early indications towards a series of "politically motivated" arson attacks.

The fires began three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem, where Israelis and Arabs live together. Later, blazes erupted in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere near Jerusalem before the largest ones spread across Haifa.

The rash of fires is the worst since 2010, when Israel suffered the 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 US.

Israel has strengthened its firefighting capabilities since then, buying planes that can drop large quantities of water on affected areas.

Several countries, including Russia, France, Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Italy sent assistance to battle this week's blazes. In a rare gesture, the Palestinians also sent firefighting teams to help.

With the imminent danger subsiding, attention shifted towards the source of the massive fires. The police chief has ordered an investigation to determine whether the suspected arsonists were linked to a larger plot. Several ministers and legislators have already spoken up, claiming the blazes were an act of terrorism.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, tweeted that "only those to whom the land does not belong are capable of burning it".

With no concrete evidence to support the claim, Arabs are accusing the government of taking advantage of the tragedy to incite feelings against them.

- AP

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