Dozens of firefighting planes from around the world were in the skies over a blazing Israeli forest from early today, as a giant US aircraft was poised to join the battle against the deadly inferno.
Despite fires sweeping hills around the northern city of Haifa for a fourth day, hopes were high that the arrival in Israel of a rented Boeing Supertanker, the world’s largest firefighting aircraft, would finally tip the balance.
Israeli fire service operations officer Boaz Arkia was cautiously upbeat.
“We wake up this morning to a slightly more optimistic morning,” he told army radio.
“It’s true that there are a number of sites where the fire is still active and we are concentrating our efforts there, but generally speaking if you look at the whole area of operations, it’s better, more optimistic.”
The fire has so far ravaged at least 5,000 hectares of land and five million trees in the pine-covered hills known locally as “little Switzerland.”
Meteorologists say rain is expected tonight or tomorrow night.
Israeli public radio said the converted 747 jumbo jet, able to carry 76,000 litres of water and flame retardant, was expected to start operating later today.
Israel’s ministers, meanwhile, were holding their weekly cabinet meeting, relocated to the Haifa suburb of Tirat HaCarmel, where some residents have been evacuated from the path of the flames.
They opened the session with a minute’s silence for victims of the fire.
“We shall devote the cabinet meeting here in Tirat HaCarmel not just as an act of solidarity but also in order to make it clear that we will rehabilitate not only the people who have been injured but the homes and the forests that have been damaged as well,” Mr Netanyahu told a news conference in Haifa.
The fire, centred on the Carmel hill range, just south and east of the city, is the biggest inferno in Israel’s 62-year history. So far, it has taken 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people to flee their homes.
Police have arrested two youths from the Druze Israeli village of Isfiya on suspicion of starting the fire “through negligence” by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic.
More than 30 firefighting aircraft were flying sorties over the forest and scrub early on Sunday, Israeli media reported.
The military said aircraft from Greece, Britain, Turkey, Russia and France were already in action. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan and Romania were due to send assistance today.
France’s ambassador to Israel, Christophe Bigot, said his country had sent five of its total of 10 aerial firefighting units to join the international effort.
“We’ve organised a major assistance in the form of half of the French fleet of firefighters, who are are now working with the Turks, with the Greeks, with the Russians,” he told army radio, in English.
Mr Bigot said the aircraft were not needed at home with the onset of fierce winter weather in northern Europe. “They were, of course out of a job, because it’s snow in France, there’s no fire to fight.”