, Israel, Dec 3- A huge fire killed 40 people, most of them prison guards, when it tore through a forest near Haifa in northern Israel on Thursday, prompting urgent calls for international help to tackle the blaze.
Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance service confirmed it had recovered the bodies of 40 people who died in the inferno, the worst blaze in Israel\’s 62-year history.
"Most of the dead were on board the bus," MDA spokesman Zachi Heller said, referring to a coach which was carrying prison guards who had been en route to evacuate prisoners from Damon jail in the middle of the Carmel national park.
Rescue workers were still searching for an unspecified number of people, among them at least two police officers listed as missing, presumed dead.
A police source earlier told AFP all the dead were prison guards who had been on board the bus. Haifa\’s police chief, who had been driving in a police vehicle next to the bus, was critically injured, medical and police sources said.
Shortly after midnight, police said strong winds had caused the fire to reach the southern part of Haifa, Israel\’s third largest city, with a population of more than 265,000 people.
"Stronger winds mean we have started evacuating the southern Deniya neighbourhood," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
More than 12,000 people had already been evacuated from the towns and villages across the area, as well as from three prisons and a hospital south of the city, he said.
Twelve hours after the fire broke out, it was still raging out of control despite intensive efforts to control it, with fire officials saying the inferno had incinerated at least 8,000 dunams (2,000 acres, 800 hectares) of land. Scene: Residents race to escape raging forest fire in Israel
"It\’s very big, it\’s now on the west side of the Carmel mountains," fire service spokesman Yoram Levy told AFP. "It\’s spreading."
Hundreds of firefighters, rescuers and police were involved in fighting the blaze and the massive rescue effort, with the army saying several hundred of its troops were also helping out.
As the blaze continued to rage, the fire service issued an urgent call for all of Israel\’s 1,500 firefighters to report to the area, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent out an urgent international appeal for help.
Offers of assistance came pouring in: Greece pledged to send four firefighting planes, Cyprus offering a helicopter and another firefighting aircraft, while Bulgaria was to fly in 90 firefighters.
The foreign ministry said it had also received pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Britain, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey.
US President Barack Obama, expressing his "deepest condolences" for the victims and said the United States had offered to help fight it. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said his country stood ready to help.
Efforts to battle the inferno were also hit by a national shortage of airborne fire retardant, police said, following a spate of forest fires over what has been the hottest summer since records began.
Visiting the scene, Netanyahu described the tragedy as an "unprecedented disaster".
"It is a fire on an international scale. The necessary means are not currently in the field but they are on the way here," he said, warning it would take time to control the inferno.
Dramatic footage showed flames rushing across the forest floor, engulfing trees and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.
Firefighters wearing breathing equipment trained jets of water onto the blaze, as ash thrown skywards by the fire rained back down on them.
An AFP photographer counted at least 20 charred bodies lying on orange stretchers by the side of a road, the clothes burnt off their bodies and only their boots intact.
Other footage showed the gutted remains of the bus, which one eyewitness said had been consumed by the flames. Facts: Deadliest forest fires of the past decade
"Anyone who\’s ever seen a firestorm will know. They could not survive it; they had no protection; they just fell to the road and burned alive," fireman Dudu Vanunu told Channel 2 television.
Fire and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear what caused the blaze, which swept through the pine forest covering the Carmel hill ridge, one of Israel\’s most popular beauty spots.
Police spokesman Rosenfeld said investigators had not yet ruled out arson.