MEGADIM, Israel - A bus burst into flames as it raced to an Israeli prison during a massive forest fire yesterday, killing dozens of prison guards in the rescue mission, officials said. It was one of the deadliest accidents in the nation's history.
Fire officials said the blaze, which torched some 800 acres, remained out of control after nightfall. "This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
He said the government was using all means at its disposal to contain the blaze, and he appealed to Cyprus, Italy, Russia and Greece to provide backup. His office said Greece and Cyprus agreed to send firefighting helicopters.
Fire commissioner Shimon Romach told Israel Radio that the country didn't have enough planes or helicopters, and that the available aircraft had trouble working at night.
The fire broke out around midday and quickly spread, fanned by hot and dry conditions at this time of year. Israel experienced an exceptionally hot summer and has had little rain during the normally wet autumn and winter season.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military to make all its resources available to help put out the fire and rescue victims, according to a statement from his office. The military said it sent soldiers and equipment to the site of the fire, including helicopters, huge bulldozers, medics and army units to help with evacuation of victims.
The fire in the northern Carmel region prompted authorities to clear the area of hundreds of residents, as well as inmates from the Damun prison, many of whom are Palestinians.
After nightfall, evacuation orders were issued for several more communities. Haifa University, at the edge of the stricken Carmel nature preserve, was evacuated, the university said in a statement.
Prison officials said a bus headed to Damun went up in flames. TV footage showed the charred bus, with several bodies on the ground. No inmates were reported injured.
Yaron Zamir, a spokesman for the national prison service, said the men were prison workers brought in as reinforcements from central Israel to assist in the rescue. He called it a "difficult, sad and incomprehensible day." Prison service officials told Israel Radio that the fire caught up with the bus and engulfed it.
Yoram Levy of the national fire service said the fire's death toll was about 40, most of whom died in the bus accident. He said officials suspected the forest fire was caused by people burning garbage.