JERUSALEM — At least 40 people were killed Thursday when a massive forest fire spread from Israel's northern city of Haifa into the surrounding hills and incinerated a bus that was carrying prison guards. It was the deadliest fire in Israel's history, according to rescue workers.
Most of those killed were guards, who were racing across the north to help evacuate a low-security jail that held Palestinian prisoners. The bus was traveling along a mountain road when flames suddenly surrounded it, rescue workers said.
The bus driver was unable to avoid the blaze, which was spreading at a rate of more than 100 mph, firefighters said. When the bus swerved off the road, it was caught in an inferno. All the prison guards were killed immediately, Israeli medics said.
"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," firefighter Dudu Vanunu said.
A police chief and several officers who were driving next to the bus were injured. They were hospitalized and listed in critical condition Thursday evening, medics said.
The prison, which held about 500 Palestinians, later was evacuated safely.
"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went to northern Israel on Thursday night to visit colleagues of the dead guards.
Televised reports of the inferno transfixed Israelis.
Many said the images reminded them of the blazes that spread across Israel's north during the war with Lebanon in 2006.
"It is scary, how much this looks like the war. We could not have imagined such a tragedy in the midst of our holiday, " said Shmulit Azoulay, a northern Haifa resident.
Israel celebrated the second night of Hanukkah on Thursday, a holiday known as the "festival of lights" for a legendary miracle in which one can of olive oil was used to light the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem for eight days in A.D. 2.
"It is a holiday where we celebrate light by lighting candles. Now it is marked by this tragic fire. It is sad for many of us," Azoulay said. "We can only hope for another miracle today."
Her words were echoed by President Shimon Peres, who said in a televised address, "We are praying for a miracle. ... We pray for the cessation of the fire."
Netanyahu declared a state of national emergency and dispatched every firefighting team in the country to fight the blaze.
Still, firefighters pleaded for help from the international community, saying that Israel won't be able to battle the fire on its own. Cyprus and Greece were sending firefighting equipment, including bladders of water that could be dropped from helicopters.
"We've lost control. I am asking all firefighters throughout Israel to help," said Reshef Hezi Levi, a spokesman for the Haifa area firefighters.
Levi said the fire started at 11 a.m. Thursday at an illegal dumping ground in the Carmel hills, which surround Haifa.
At least 2,000 acres had burned through Thursday night.
Israel is suffering through one of the worst droughts in 60 years, driven largely by unseasonably hot weather, which has seen temperatures in the mid- to high 80s.
Firefighters said the flames spread rapidly along three fronts through the tinder-dry hills and that they'd continue to evacuate thousands of people from northern towns and villages.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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