Israeli fire not under control, but "improvement" noted

Israeli fire not under control, but "improvement" noted

Israel allowed people evacuated in the face of a raging bush fire to return to their homes Saturday, but officials warned that even nearly 60 hours after the fire began, it was still not under control, although the situation had improved, dpa reported.

Police meanwhile arrested two youths on suspicion their negligence had sparked the fire shortly before noon Thursday, on the Carmel hill south-east of the northern city of Haifa.

By Saturday night the blaze had claimed 41 lives, destroyed around 50 square kilometres of parched, drought-stricken land and devoured five million trees, and forced 17,000 people from 14 locations to flee their homes.

Residents of five of those locations, mostly to the west and north-west of the area in flames, were allowed home Saturday afternoon, but a police spokesman said this did not mean the fire was being brought under control.

It did however indicate an "improvement" in the situation, spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.

A spokesman for the Israeli firefighters said Saturday evening that there was some "weakening" of the flames, but he he was hesitant to use the word "control."

Firefighters also warned that the situation could change overnight, when firefighting aircraft could not be used, and strong winds could reignite some doused areas and, by changing direction, spread the flames.

Police Spokesman Rosenfeld had earlier in the day confirmed that the fire was most probably caused by negligence, not arson. On Saturday afternoon he said that two youths - whose age Israel Radio put as 16 - were being questioned to see whether it was their negligence which led to the inferno near the Druze village of Isafiyah, about 10 kilometres south-east of Haifa.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing a news conference Saturday night, thanked countries which had sent aid to Israel to help the fire. Such assistance, he said, was "heart-warming."

He said a Boeing super-tanker, capable of carrying 80,000 litres of water,would arrive in Israel Saturday night, to reinforce the other aircraft already operating from first light to dusk.

These aircraft, from such countries as Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Bulgaria, as well as a Russian plane which could carry 42,000 litres of water, were in the skies all day Saturday, crisscrossing the area of the fire and dumpling water or fire-retardant on the flames.

On the ground, army bulldozers drove slowly through the thick vegetation, clearing paths intended hopefully to serve as fire- breaks.

Spain, Egypt, Jordan, Croatia, Romania, Italy, Azerbaijan, Britain and the US are also sending aircraft, fire-retardant chemicals and other equipment. The Palestinian Authority said it had sent fire trucks.

On Saturday night the official death toll was still 41 people.

The latest fatality was a 16-year-old volunteer fireman named as Elad Rebin, who perished while trying to save prison service cadets whose bus had been caught in the inferno. Rebin's charred remains were identified Saturday morning. He had previously been listed as missing.

Rosenfeld said 38 of the dead were prison service officers, and the remaining two were policemen.

Two other fires near the town of Ma'alot, about 40 kilometres north-east of the Carmel fire, and near the northern village of Basmat Tab'un erupted Saturday. The first was brought under control and in both cases police suspect arson.

Police said one of the main problems they faced was that of people returning to evacuated homes before it was safe to do so and so needing to be rescued.

Others, who had refused the order to be evacuated, were also extracted Saturday morning.

Police also asked Israelis not to flock to the north of the country to watch the firefighters at work.

While many Israelis were arriving to bring the firefighters refreshment, others, Israel Radio reported, were offering advice, some of it practical, on how best to fight the fire.

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