, HAIFA, Israel, Dec 5 – Dozens of firefighting planes from around the world were in the skies over a blazing Israeli forest at dawn on Sunday and a giant US aircraft was set to join the battle against the deadly inferno.
As fires swept through the hills around the northern city of Haifa for a fourth day, hopes were high that the arrival in Israel in the early hours of a rented Boeing Supertanker, the largest aerial firefighting plane in the world, would finally tip the balance in the struggle to put out the flames.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that unlike aircraft already on the scene, the Supertanker was able to operate at night, a potentially decisive quality.
"The pilots and firefighters do exceptional work but night falls and the wind-fanned embers return to life, so the ability to operate at night is very significant," Netanyahu told a news conference in Haifa.
He said ministers would hold their weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday in the Haifa suburb of Tirat HaCarmel, where some residents have been evacuated from the path of the flames.
"We shall devote the cabinet meeting here in Tirat HaCarmel not just as an act of solidarity but also in order to make it clear that we will rehabilitate not only the people who have been injured but the homes and the forests that have been damaged as well," Netanyahu said.
The massive blaze ripping through northern Israel consumed yet more swathes of land on Saturday, flaring up at nightfall as the waterbombers stopped working and high winds fanned the flames.
The fire, which is racing through the pine forests on Carmel hill ridge, just south and east of Haifa, is the biggest inferno in Israel\’s 62-year history.
So far, it has claimed 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people out of their homes.
As darkness fell and the planes stopped working, high winds fanned the flames, with reports of the blaze spreading towards the Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel.
However, in other areas where the threat was believed to be contained, such as Tirat HaCarmel, police allowed some people to return to homes they had fled.
As the massive operation continued, police said they had arrested two youths from the Druze village of Isfiya on suspicion of starting the fire "through negligence" by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic. Related article;Inferno closes in on frightened Druze village
On the ground, hundreds of firefighters worked round the clock — some 450 Israelis backed up by 92 firemen from Bulgaria and a number from Jordan.
More than 30 firefighting aircraft were flying sorties over the forest and scrub early on Sunday, Israeli media reported.
More were expected to arrive during the day — five from Spain, three from the United States and one from Germany, Netanyahu\’s office said.
Help was also on its way from the other side of the world as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her government was sending firefighters, including some with expertise from last year\’s deadly bushfires in Victoria.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas too pledged assistance, drawing an expression of appreciation from Netanyahu.
US President Barack Obama promised 45 tonnes of fire retardant as well as 12,000 litres of class A foam to help battle the blaze, as well as experts and firefighting equipment, a White House aide said.