A series of fires has spread across Israel. As of this writing, at least five fires are burning out of control around the country, in Zichron Yaakov, Dolev, Kiryat Gat, Gush Etzion and the Western Galilee.
The cause of the fires has not been ascertained, but Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh said Thursday, Nov. 24 that “several” individuals have been arrested on suspicion that they were involved in arson attacks over the past several days. Shin Bet said the agency is investigating the possibility that several of the fires were nationalistically motivated terror attacks.
Alsheikh refused to comment further on the arrests and ongoing investigation, other than to say that it was “reasonable to assume” individuals that intentionally ignited fires with the current weather conditions were not innocent pyromaniacs, hinting at the possibility of nationalist attacks.
Joint List MKs rejected statements that a large percentage of the brush fires were the result of arson terrorist attacks.
Fire crews continue to battle high winds and unseasonably dry conditions around the country.
More than 200 homes in Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa, and Dolev, in the Binyamin region were evacuated due to the fires.
Thirteen people have been treated for smoke inhalation, mostly at Hillel Yafe Medical Center in Hadera. Twenty homes have been damaged, including 12 that have been completely destroyed.
Health officials said that Zichron Yaakov residents should remain indoors with windows closed in order to avoid inhaling smoke.
One evacuee, Zichron Yaakov farmer Shai Zukerman, told Army Radio that he hasn’t seen a fire like this in many years, and added that the high winds are changing direction frequently, complicating efforts to contain the blaze.
“There are fire planes in the area, on the ground I can see fire trucks moving [towards the edges of town, towards the fire]. The fire is close to the homes, we are very worried about them.
“It’s got to be 10 or even 12 years since we’ve seen a fire like this, maybe even more,” Zukerman said.
In addition, residents of a third town, Gevaot, in Gush Etzion, told TPS that they could see flames from two fires burning near the community, but no evacuation orders had been issued.
Fires have also been reported near Kfar Vradim, and in the western Galilee, about 10 kilometers east of Nahariya, near the Lebanese border.
The fires followed another blaze overnight between Nov. 21 and Nov. 21 in a forest to the north of Bet Shemesh, near the Latrun Monastery. Residents of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, a mixed Jewish-Arab settlement, were evacuated but fire crews extinguished the fire by early Tuesday. Residents returned to their homes around midday.
On Wednesday, Nov. 23, about 60 families from Talmon, about 20 kilometers east of Ben Gurion Airport in the Binyamin region of the West Bank, were evacuated as fire crews continue to battle a fire from reaching the community.
The fire, which began early Wednesday outside the nearby community of Dolev, did not initially appear to threaten Talmon. But the fire changed direction when winds shifted towards evening.
Fire officials said that they were working on the basic assumption that the fires were deliberately set.
Amnon Amir, commander of the Judea and Samaria region of the Israel Fire Department, said the fire near Dolev began in a valley south of the community, in an area that hikers don’t normally get to.
Meanwhile, police spokesmen said they believe the fire broke out as the result of dry, windy weather conditions.
Dr. Barry Lynn, a lecturer in meteorology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the founder of Weather-it-Is-Israel, told TPS that unless ignited by lightning, brush fires are all caused by human failure, intentional or otherwise. He noted that rainfall for this year so far is below normal, meaning conditions around the country were ripe for fire.
“Sometimes, our normal winter [weather] patterns are delayed in arriving, and this is one of those years. In fact, there are those who say that the onset of winter has moved later in the fall season with the warming observed over the last decade. Wildfire spread and intensity depends on dryness and wind speed. Since the arrival of winter tends to bring strong winds, this combines with the late dryness to make wildfires more dangerous,” he added.
Weather forecasts for the rest of this week continue to predict high winds, possibly calming on Friday but likely remaining strong enough to constitute a fire hazard into early next week.
However, medium-range models indicate rain for the last few days of November.
The fire near Talmon bore many similarities to a fire near Neve Ilan, about 15 kilometers west of Jerusalem. There, crews have been battling a blaze all day outside the nearby town of Nataf, but shifting evening winds sent the flames raging towards Neve Ilan, in the direction of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
On Tuesday, Nov. 22, Jerusalem Police arrested four employees of a contractor working on a road near the Nataf community. The men are suspected of igniting a bonfire that got out of control and ignited the blaze that currently threatens the community. It is not clear whether the original fire was an intentional act of arson or a careless mistake.
The arrests followed the declaration Tuesday of a fire ban covering nearly the whole country, signed late Tuesday by acting Fire Commissioner Shimon Ben Ner. Violating the ban, which includes bonfires and fires set in open fields, carries a six month jail sentence or an NIS 74,300 fine.
This is a developing story. This story was updated Nov. 25.