HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) – A huge fire swept through a forest in northern Israel on Thursday, killing up to 40 people, many of them prison guards who were trapped in a bus trying to flee the flames, security services said.
Israel called on Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Russia to send aircraft to help them battle the blaze, which was raging out of control on hills approaching the city of Haifa more than seven hours after it first took hold.
Local fire services mobilized emergency crews from across the country, and fire trucks tried desperately to reach the scene, weaving through heavy rush hour traffic as night fell.
"It's a disaster on a scale that we have never seen before," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
"We are harnessing all the forces of the state to deal with this disaster and rescue those who are injured and to stop the fire," he added.
At least 2,000 people were evacuated from local towns and villages as the flames leapt through the dense, pine woodland, fanned by strong winds off the Mediterranean sea.
A collective farm, Kibbutz Beit Oren, was razed to the ground and television showed pictures of a bus and car, which had been carrying prison guards and rescuers when they were engulfed by the flames. Both vehicles were gutted.
Click image to see photos of the forest fire
"There are a lot of casualties. We are talking of about 40 people," said Police Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, adding that a handful of people were still missing.
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for national police, said two of those missing were police officers and that a senior commander of the Haifa force had been critically injured.
The Magen David Adom paramedics confirmed just 22 deaths.
"What is happening here behind us is there's a fire that is blazing out of control, moving toward the west ... It is an enormous disaster," Aharonovitch added.
Israeli media said it was the biggest forest fire in the country's history, with some 7,000 acres of land destroyed.
Some 500 inmates from the local Damon prison were moved to safety in the early afternoon as the blaze spread.
A jail official said guards from around Israel had been attending a course at the penitentiary and had been driven straight into the flames in their doomed bid to escape danger.
Some Israeli news sites said the prison guards had been heading toward to the prison trying to help with the general evacuation when they were surprised by the fast-moving blaze.
Israeli media said the fire started around midday, possibly in an illegal dumping ground in the Carmel Hills.
Israel has experienced unseasonably hot weather for months and it was the driest November in 60 years, meaning the flames were able to spread quickly through the tinder-dry countryside.
"We've lost control. I am asking all firefighters throughout Israel to phone in and report for duty," said Reshef Hezi Levi, spokesman for the Haifa area firefighters.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton)
(Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Myra MacDonald)