TIRAT CARMEL, Israel (Reuters) - A major forest fire killed at least 40 people in northern Israel on Thursday, including prison guard cadets trapped in a bus while heading to evacuate inmates, officials said.
Hundreds of firemen, scores of fire trucks and air force water cannon rushed to the scene in the Carmel hills above the Mediterranean port of Haifa to battle the blaze which raged in strong winds, devouring the wooded slopes.
More than 12,000 people were evacuated from towns and villages as the fires threatened hillside homes. Firefighters said it was the biggest forest fire in the country’s history, with some 7,000 acres of land destroyed.
A collective farm in the forest, Kibbutz Beit Oren, was razed. A gutted bus and car that carried the prison guards were all that was left of their prison evacuation mission.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on a visit to the scene by helicopter Israel had suffered a “disaster on a scale we have never seen before.”
“We are harnessing all the forces of the state to deal with this disaster and rescue those who are injured and to stop the fire,” he added.
Patients were rushed out of a psychiatric hospital on the hillside at Tarit Carmel, as sparks flew through the air, igniting trees and tinder-dry brush on the slope above its roofs.
While Europe freezes in an early winter, Israel has had unseasonably hot weather in its driest November in 60 years.
Netanyahu called an extraordinary session of his security cabinet before the weekend to decide further steps and declared a day of mourning for the casualties.
Turkey, despite its strained ties with Israel, was one of eight countries sending aircraft and flame retardants to help fight the flames, Israeli officials said.
Tirat Carmel, near Haifa, was one a dozen towns partially evacuated. Police officers blared orders through megaphones for residents to leave as smoke engulfed the town and spread in great billows above the glowing orange heart of the fire.
“There are a lot of casualties. We are talking of about 40 people,” said Police Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, adding that a handful of people were missing in addition to those known to have been killed.
“What is happening here behind us is there’s a fire that is blazing out of control, moving toward the west ... It is an enormous disaster,” Aharonovitch added.
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for national police, said two police officers were missing and a senior commander of the Haifa force had been critically injured.
Paramedics said they had found 36 bodies.
Some 500 inmates from the local Damon prison were moved to safety in buses under heavy police escort as the blaze spread.
The fire started around midday, possibly in an illegal dumping ground in the Carmel Hills, Israeli media said.
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; editing by Myra MacDonald