HAIFA, Israel – Foreign firefighters and aircraft poured into Israel Friday in an unprecedented wave of international assistance as the country battled a huge forest fire that has killed at least 41 people and displaced thousands.
Firefighters struggled for a second day to contain the inferno as flames spread through one of the country's few natural forests to the outskirts of Israel's third-largest city, Haifa. One of the main highways was closed to traffic as smoke billowed toward the Mediterranean coastline.
"The size of the fire is huge, the wind is very strong and there is a problem accessing the mountains and valleys," said Yoram Levi, a spokesman for Israel's fire and rescue service. "We don't have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water. It is not enough for a large-scale fire."
The shortfall prompted Israel to issue a rare cry for nonmilitary international assistance. The Jewish state is better known for sending its own rescue teams and medical personnel to other countries to help in their disaster-relief efforts.
Some 100 firefighters from Bulgaria arrived as well as fire extinguishing planes and crews from Greece and Britain, Israeli officials said. More aid was on its way from the United States, Russia, Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan, Spain, Azerbaijan, Romania and Turkey — which put aside tensions over Israel's deadly raid on a Turkish Gaza-bound flotilla in May to lend a hand.
The foreign assistance was already in action Friday as several planes dumped water on the flames still shooting from the high trees. Bits of ash flew through the air and large red flames were closing in on a hotel and a spa south of the city.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio that all international aid was expected to arrive by Friday afternoon and he expressed hope the fire could be suppressed by Saturday night.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military to make all its resources available for the effort, which was being coordinated by the Israeli air force. The military said it sent soldiers and equipment, including helicopters, bulldozers, medics and army units.
The Israeli Cabinet convened an emergency meeting to discuss the fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked countries around the world for their help — and made a special point to thank Turkey — before departing north to visit the wounded in hospitals and inspect firsthand the efforts to put out the fire.
"We are amid a disaster of international proportions," he said. "We have to admit that our firefighting services cannot handle a forest fire backed by such a strong wind. We don't have the means for it."
The disaster exposed critical shortfalls in emergency services. With the country's resources focused primarily on its military and police forces, firefighters have been undermanned and underfunded for years.
Levi said the country only has 1,400 firefighters, far below the worldwide average. The force also complains of having old and faulty equipment.
The sense of helplessness sparked outrage among Israelis.
Aluf Benn, a columnist for the Haaretz daily, said the country's inability to control the flames proved it was not ready for a massive attack against it from the likes of Iran. He compared the fire to the fiasco of 1973, when Israel was caught off guard by a surprise military attack from Egypt and Syria.
Maariv columnist noted that a country that carries out chilling military operations, leads the world in high-tech and whose powerful economy emerged unscathed from the global crisis, is also the country "whose fire-trucks date back to the previous century, and a country that therefore finds itself caught, standing before the flames, with its pants down."
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the death toll had risen to 41, all on a bus carrying Israeli prison guards to try to rescue Palestinian inmates at a nearby prison.
The bus caught fire after a tree fell across the road, blocking its path, police said. With no way out, many of the guards were burned alive inside the vehicle. Others perished while trying to flee the flames fed by brush left tinder-dry by lack of rain. The prisoners survived.
Forensic experts were still working on identifying the victims and a procession of funerals began Friday. Police also evacuated a university, three prisons and a hospital.
Two police officers and two firefighters were still reported missing Friday. Rosenfeld said 16 people remained hospitalized, including the Haifa police chief, who was in critical condition. Ahuva Tomer was interviewed on TV moments before she was engulfed by the flames.
Israeli rabbis issued a special prayer for the victims. President Barack Obama also offered condolences to families who lost loved ones in the fire, and pledged U.S. help at a Hanukkah celebration at the White House late Thursday.
Some 15,000 people were evacuated from their homes and more than 20 percent of the Carmel forest in Israel's Galilee had been burned since the fire started Thursday, officials said.
The area is one of Israel's few large forests, made up of natural growth and planted areas, a favorite spot for camping, hiking and picnics. A nature reserve provides a refuge for dozens of species of wildlife and forest rangers have evacuated animals from the inferno.
Kibbutz Bet Oren, a collective village in the wooded area, suffered significant damage after its residents were evacuated, witnesses said.
Investigators said they were uncertain if that the fire was accidental or deliberate. They said it originated around midday Thursday from an unauthorized burning of a garbage dump in the Druse village of Ussfiya and was stoked by unusually hot and dry conditions that caused it to quickly spread toward the Mediterranean coast.
Israel has experienced an exceptionally warm summer and has had little rain during the normally wet autumn.
Several communities and a neighborhood of Haifa were evacuated, along with Haifa University at the edge of the stricken Carmel nature preserve. The military emptied one of its prisons and three bases near the fire area. A psychiatric hospital was evacuated, and a nature resort in the middle of the forest sent all its guests home.