60,000 evacuated after arsonists hit city

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes in the northern Israeli city of Haifa as wildfires tear across the region.

Huge plumes of smoke in places blocked out the sun as police, firefighters, two search and rescue army units and 500 called-up military reservists grappled with the fierce fires on Thursday.

While there have been no serious injuries reported, dozens of people have been hospitalised for smoke inhalation and 60,000 residents in eight neighbourhoods ordered to evacuate their homes.

"Our whole apartment is full of smoke and I'm worried about how the furniture and our possessions will be affected," evacuated Haifi resident Yael Hamer told The Independent. "I'm lucky, we are lucky that we are OK. We're staying with relatives tonight," she said.

"This has never happened before and I hope to God it is the first and last time." 

The severe fires have caused unprecedented damage to Israel's third-largest city since they started on Tuesday.

"We are in the middle of a war against fire - normally it's a war against other things," Yoram Levy, Haifa's Fire and Rescue Services spokesperson said.

"It will take a long time to extinguish the spots that are still burning.

The city of Haifa strengthened its firefighting capabilities after bushfires killed 42 people in 2010, but authorities are still struggling to contain the unprecedented blazes.

"The last big blaze we had was in 2010 but this is nothing like that. The fires are all over the place and we suspect they have started because of arson."

Israel's police chief Roni Alsheich echoed Mr Levy's claim, telling reporters that politically motivated arsonists were suspected of setting or fanning some of the fires and arrests had been made. 

The blazes started at Neve Shalom, a community outside Jerusalem where Jews and Arabs live together, and later erupted elsewhere near Jerusalem and in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov, police said.

Right-wing Minister for Education Naftali Bennett angered many by writing on Twitter on Wednesday night that the fires could only have been started by "someone who this land does not belong to".

He went on to call the suspected arson "terrorism in every sense of the word" at a media conference on Thursday.

Speaking to The Israel Project, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said that the authorities were responding swiftly to the fires, and there were no security concerns about the blazes reaching nearby oil refineries.

"There are about six aircraft which are going to a specific place near a gasoline station around which there is very heavy fire," he said.

"They succeeded relatively in shutting it down, but to tell you we are facing the end of the matter is not the case."

Haifa's residents are unfortunately well practised at dealing with wildfires: the city's security procedures and firefighting capabilities were strengthened after fires that burned for four days in 2010 killed 42 people and were only extinguished with the help of planes sent from the US. 

Russia, Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia and Greece have all sent assistance to Haifa this week.

In a phone call on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended his thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin for sending two large aircraft to help deal with the wildfires, a sign of the developing closeness between the two countries.

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