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ISRAEL: More help on the way to fight Carmel fire

December 4, 2010 |  9:00 pm

As more international help continues to fly into Israel to help combat the fire decimating the Carmel woodland, the worst in the country's history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed thanks for the many helping hands. He has spoken with 30 heads of state over the the last three days and says he finds the mobilization heartwarming. There is "no shame" in receiving help, said Netanyahu. "It is part of our existence in a global village.... We both receive and extend assistance."

The wake-up call was harsh and Netanyahu heard it well.  The prime minister announced his intention to supply Israel with an aerial firefighting force, "which we need in this era of global warming." Speaking Satuday at the command center set up at Haifa University, Netanyahu commented on assistance from the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt, and said that forming and equipping the force will establish "a regional network for the benefit of our peoples." A proposal for building the force will be submitted quickly and budgeting expedited.

Netanyahu's international efforts have resulted in considerable aerial assistance. At least 10 firefighting aircraft have arrived from Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Britain to join the team of Israeli dusters. Russia's formidable Ilyushin, with a water capacity of 40,000 liters, has arrived along with other planes and a team of 10 experts. 

Others yet on the way will double the air force fighting the flames; the army is coordinating the arrival and incorporation of the foreign aerial assistance.

The planes work by day, dumping water and fire-retardant chemicals on the fire, but can't work in the dark. By night, efforts are handed over to ground crews bulldozing clearings to keep the fire from spreading, with the high winds picking up at night and threatening to undo daytime progress.

Saturday afternoon, it was called to the prime minister's attention that there is a plane with night-time firefighting capabilities. The Evergreen Supertanker, a Boeing 747, with nearly double the capacity of  the Russian giants, is the world's biggest. I want it, Netanyahu said. Where will the funding come from, his military secretary asked him. "We'll find it," said the prime minister. It costs $200,000 an hour to operate. Within an hour there was a rental contract with the Arizona-based company,  and by 2:30 a.m.  the massive aircraft had rumbled in. 

Also arriving overnight was the U.S. Air Force delivering the first 20 metric tons of fire-retardant chemicals, flown in by two C-130s from the U.S. military's European Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. More flights are scheduled to keep a constant supply.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, James B. Cunningham, greeted them on the tarmac. "We are pleased to join efforts of many other friends of Israel" who are now engaged on the ground in dealing with the fire, Cunningham said. "Our prayers go out to those who have lost loved ones and have suffered as a result of the fire."

 President Obama had called Netanyahu on the way back from visiting troops in Afghanistan, expressed his condolences and discussed aid details. Netanyahu thanked him personally and on behalf of the entire country.

The aerial efforts and shifts in the wind are starting to make inroads, but officials are still wary of expressing much optimism. The situation is under control, authorities say, but the fire isn't. There is hope that Sunday, as the huge planes begin their attack, the fire may be brought under control.

Meanwhile, police say that two brothers, ages 14 and 16, might be responsible for the giant blaze that has left a nation mourning the deaths of more than 40 people, as well as the loss of 5 million trees and a much-loved  landscape. Authorities didn't elaborate, but the direction of the investigation seems to be negligence, not arson. The boys' mother says they were in school at the time, and other relatives say authorities are looking for excuses to evade their own responsibility.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanks Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, one of many calls he has made.

Bottom: U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham welcomes U.S. flights delivering firefighting chemicals.

 

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