HAIFA, Israel (AP) — With backing from several other countries, Israeli firefighters on Thursday battled blazes around the country for the third day as flames damaged homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of people.
Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were investigating all possible causes, including arson. Windy and hot weather have helped fan the flames.
Residents of eight neighborhoods in the northern city of Haifa were told evacuate their homes on Thursday afternoon, he said. Rosenfeld did not know how many people were affected but media said it was tens of thousands of people.
The military said it “deployed two Search and Rescue battalions in order to assist civilian efforts.” It also called up about 500 reserve soldiers to back up the police and fire departments.
The rash of fires is the worst since 2010, when Israel suffered the single deadliest wildfire in its history. That blaze burned out of control for four days, killed 42 people and was extinguished only after firefighting aircraft from as far away as the United States arrived and brought it under control.
This week’s fires were spread in different places across the country.
In Haifa, several roads and schools were closed in some areas. Haifa Mayor Yonah Yahav told Channel 2 TV there were several fires in his city.
Yahav also said there were indications one of the fires was caused when “someone tossed a cigarette in an area full of oil and flammable fluids” in an industrial zone. Thick smoke billowed over homes as high flames scorched trees and greenery nearby.
A spokesman for Israel’s fire and rescue service, Yoram Levy, told the station that firefighters were working around the clock. He said the fires in Haifa “are probably arson.” He said there was also an attempt to set ablaze a fire station.
Police said the blazes started early Tuesday morning at Neve Shalom, a community outside Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together.
Later, fires erupted in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere near Jerusalem. In all, hundreds of homes have been damaged and thousands of people have been evacuated. About a dozen were treated for smoke inhalation.
Several countries — including Cyprus, Russia, Italy, Croatia and Greece — are assisting the Israeli firefighters with equipment as the fires continue. Turkey later also joined the aid effort. Israel and Turkey recently struck a reconciliation deal that ended six years of animosity.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, thanking him for his help in dealing with the fires. The premier’s office said on Thursday that Russia is sending two large firefighting aircraft to Israel.