The Israel Fire and Rescue Services on Saturday night declared the conclusion of nationwide operations to extinguish a rash of forest fires across Israel over the past few days amid a severe heatwave.

Fueled by the scorching weather, more than a thousand fires devastated towns and forests, forcing thousands of people out of their homes. Authorities investigating the fires were looking at electrical faults, Lag B’Omer holiday bonfires, arson and incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip as possible causes. 

More than a thousand firefighters were dispatched throughout the country to battle the 1,023 blazes that started over a period of 41 hours — a new fire every two and a half minutes, officials said. Thirteen firefighters were lightly injured.

More than 300 volunteers helped the firefighters in scorching temperatures, which in some places reached more than 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Firefighters battle a blaze near Kibbutz Harel in central Israel, May 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Firefighter planes work to put out a fire raging in near Kibbutz Harel, on May 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Israel’s 12 firefighting planes operated during the operation, the fire service said, with the help of nine aircraft sent by five countries: Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Croatia. Collectively the aircraft made 120 sorties.

The blazes burned down 7,940 dunams (1,962 acres) of forests, according to authorities’ data. One of the areas that suffered the worst damage was the Ben Shemen Forest in central Israel. 

Some 50 houses burned down in central Israel, including 40 of the 50 homes in the village of Mevo Modi’im and ten more in the nearby Kibbutz Harel. Residents of the two communities have not been allowed to return home.

Mevo Modi’im residents, who are staying in the Ben Shemen Youth Village, held a Jewish ceremony marking the end of the Shabbat day of rest — or Havdalah — in unexpectedly high spirits, vowing to rebuild their mostly religious community after many of their childhood homes were destroyed.

“We were hit by a disaster, but Shabbat is Shabbat and its sweetness gives us our lives,” Alon Tigar, chairman of the association that runs the community, told the Ynet news site. “We are a strong community and we will build Mevo Modi’im 2.0, we have the hope. I spoke with government officials and they promised to help. I hope they make good on their words.”

Firefighters at the scene of a fire in an apartment in the northern city of Safed, May 25, 2019 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

In the northern city of Safed, a toddler was killed Saturday in a house fire that broke out in a 5th-floor apartment. He was identified as three-year-old Elad Prizat. The cause of that fire hasn’t been determined.

At an emergency briefing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had appealed for international help to combat the fires, and that Israel “really appreciates” the help, singling out Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for pitching in with two helicopters. He added that several others, including Russia and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, had offered aid. 

“I am deeply thankful for the readiness of neighbors to help us in a time of crisis, just as we help them,” Netanyahu said.

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Date published: 27/05/2019
Written by: TOI STAFF
Feature image: An Israeli flag is pictured in front of vehicles that were badly damaged by a fire amidst extreme heat wave in the village of Mevo Modi’im, in central Israel on May 24, 2019. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
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