HAIFA: Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers fought Friday to control a massive forest fire that has killed 41 people, as global help poured in to battle the biggest inferno in the country’s history.
As high winds drove the blaze towards the northern port city of Haifa, police and medical officials said rescuers had recovered another body, taking the toll to 41, and warned the number of dead could still rise.
"As of this morning, we have recovered 41 bodies, and there are still three people missing," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, adding there were 16 people injured, including three seriously hurt and one in critical condition.
Rosenfeld said 15,000 people had been evacuated as the fire incinerated more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land and reached the southern part of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city with a population of 265,000.
Police and rescue workers confirmed most of the dead were prison guards on board a bus, who had been trying to evacuate prisoners from a facility in the forest.
"The bus tried to turn around and some tried to get away but they were caught by the fire from two different directions," Rosenfeld told AFP.
He added two police officers and third person were still missing, and warned the toll could still rise.
"We still haven’t searched areas like Beit Oren (kibbutz) which were very badly burned so we are not sure what we are going to find, and the toll may still rise," he said.
However, early on Friday, Israel’s Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch was cautiously optimistic efforts to curb the blaze were taking effect.
"Seen from the air, the situation is better than what you can see on the ground," he told Channel 10 private television.
As thousands of firefighters, police and army troops tried to tame the blaze, offers of international help poured in, with more than a dozen countries pledging to send firefighting planes, helicopters and personnel to help.
By early Friday, five Greek planes, a Bulgarian craft with 100 firefighters, and a Cypriot plane and helicopter and a British helicopter were in Israel, a military spokesman said. A second British helicopter was due to arrive shortly.
The foreign ministry said it had also received pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Britain, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey.
US President Barack Obama expressed his "deepest condolences" for the victims and said US firefighters were on standby to help, while Australia also said its forces were ready to help.
Visiting the scene late on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the blaze as "a fire on an international scale."
He was expected to convene an emergency session of the cabinet in Tel Aviv on Friday morning to discuss the tragedy.
Dramatic footage showed flames rushing across the forest floor, engulfing trees and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.
At least 20 charred bodies could be seen lying on orange stretchers by the side of a road, their clothes burnt off their bodies and only their boots intact.
Other footage showed the gutted remains of the bus, which one witness said had been consumed by the flames.
"Anyone who’s ever seen a firestorm will know. They could not survive it; they had no protection; they just fell to the road and burned alive," fireman Dudu Vanunu told Channel 2 television.
Fire and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, which swept through the pine forest covering the Carmel hill ridge, one of Israel’s most popular beauty spots.
Yoram Levy, a spokesman for the fire service, said the blaze appeared to have broken out in a rubbish dump in the Druze village of Isfiya, an account supported by witness testimony reported by the Haaretz daily.
Pilot Alon Chaim said he had spotted a small fire outside Isfiya shortly after 11:00 am (0900 GMT) on Thursday and had alerted the fire department.
"I flew over the fire, which at that point was a tiny blaze," he told the paper, saying the fire could have been put out very quickly.
The Israeli press was filled with scathing criticism of the government for the country’s woeful lack of preparation.
"The wind, it seems, is the only thing directing anything in this country," wrote media commentator Ben Caspit in the Maariv daily.