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Deadly Israel wildfire could be controlled soon; Palestinians assist

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Palestinians are sending more equipment to help with the Israel wildfire
  • Two people have been arrested, though arson is not suspected
  • The fire has killed 41 people and injured 17
  • Most of the 41 killed were cadets in Israel's prison service

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Widespread fire that has wreaked havoc in Israel could be contained soon, an Israeli public security official said Sunday .

"We are close to the end. I hope that we can finish this story within a day or two," said Yitzhak Aharonovitz, Israel's minister of public security.

But the wildfire that has killed at least 41 and injured at least 17 others remains a challenge.

"A new front of fire has started again near the village of Isfiya, but it is now under control," Yoram Levi, a fire and rescue services spokesman, said Sunday. "There are other local new fires on a small scale due to the high temperatures in the area today."

Palestinians announced Sunday the deployment of more crews into Israel, including three additional fire engines, to assist with the efforts.

On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he "had a very good and warm talk" with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I expressed appreciation both for this step and for his solidarity in conveying his condolences, as others have also done, and I told him that we are in the same neighborhood," Netanyahu told reporters. The fire is sometimes here and sometimes there."

Israeli police arrested two suspects Saturday in connection with the deadly wildfire, though police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said it appears the fires started out of negligence.

Rosenfeld said the suspects were being questioned at a local police station.

As the police probe unfolded, firefighters battled three major blazes fueled by shifting winds.

The flames spread over 10,000 acres around Haifa, Israel's third largest city, threatening businesses, tourism and one of Israel's greenest regions, Mount Carmel.

About 17,000 people have been evacuated, but residential areas were not under threat, he said.

The American Jewish Committee announced it is making an initial $100,000 donation to Israeli organizations assisting with relief from the fire.

On Saturday, Netanyahu described the help Israel has received from other nations, including Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, as "heartwarming," the Jerusalem Post reported.

"One thing is clear, the Israeli people are standing together and many, many countries are together with Israel. This is no small thing," Netanyahu said during a press conference.

"This is surely a point of light in this our festival of lights Hanukkah," he said.

Israeli's military noted in a statement Saturday that firefighters from Bulgaria and Greece had joined Israeli personnel on the blaze's front lines.

At least 10 different countries have offered their assistance and firefighting equipment, according to Netanyahu's office, including an American Boeing 747 "Super Tanker" firefighting plane, which began operating Sunday.

Additionally, five U.S. Defense Department aircraft were designated to help with the efforts.

They include three C-130 firefighting aircraft from the U.S. Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard and two C-130s from the U.S. European Command, which will depart Ramstein Air Base in Germany carrying 20 tons of fire retardant, the U.S. Agency for International Development said.

The agency said it has already chartered commercial aircraft to deliver 45 tons of fire retardant and 12,000 liters of foam to suppress the flames.

Two funerals took place Saturday after another eight were held Friday for those killed, Rosenfeld said.

Most of the 41 victims were cadets in Israel's prison service who arrived Thursday to help evacuate 500 inmates from the Damon prison near Haifa.

Among the dead, 40 were apparently burned alive when their bus, traveling along a narrow mountain road, was engulfed by the fast-moving blaze, the Jerusalem Post reported.

In an interview with the newspaper, a firefighter spokesman said the bus was gone in less than three minutes.

"The bus had no chance. They tried to escape but were burned alive," the spokesman said. "It was a horrific scene."

The IDF said the victims will be buried with full honors in military ceremonies.

Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel about 50 miles north of Tel Aviv, Haifa's metropolitan area is also host to historical sites that date to Biblical times.

The fire has also threatened a sensitive ecological area near the Hai Bar nature reserve. Known as Mount Carmel's "Little Switzerland," the reserve is home to a wildlife preservation project that seeks to bring back native species mentioned in the Old Testament.

Though Israel is known for its military might, it has been criticized for failing to properly handle the blazes.

CNN's Paula Hancocks, Guy Azriel and Paul Colsey contributed to this report.