, HAIFA, Dec 2 – A massive forest fire raged out of control near the northern Israeli city of Haifa on Thursday, forcing police to evacuate inmates from a prison and warn locals they might be forced to leave.
"There are 500 inmates in that jail and 100 have been evacuated from the area until now," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. "They are continuing with the evacuation."
He said that about 20 families from the Arab village of Ussafiya had been evacuated from their homes as flames swept through the pine forest that covers the Carmel hill ridge.
Israeli public radio said that the fire covered "thousands of dunams" (hundreds of hectares) and that parts of Haifa university had been evacuated, along with a kibbutz, a hotel and the Damon prison, which mainly houses Palestinian security prisoners and those found in Israel without permits.
"It\’s a very, very large area," Rosenfeld said.
Israeli radio reported that the fire broke out in four separate locations and Rosenfeld said that police were investigating whether it could have been caused by arson, though he cautioned it was "too early to say yet" if that was the cause.
Witnesses said that the area was being sprayed from the air and fire services from throughout Israel were rushing to the scene.
The radio reported that 40 fire engines and six aircraft were seeking to control the flames.
There were no immediate reports of injury or property damage.
After a long, dry summer Israel is experiencing an unusually warm and dry autumn.
The Israel Meteorological Service listed the midday temperature in the Haifa area on Thursday as 31 degrees Celsius (87 Fahrenheit) with winds reaching 30 kilometres per hour (17 mph).