Huge Jerusalem-area wildfire burns into the night as police hunt for missing man

Firefighters continued to battle flames from a massive blaze outside Jerusalem late Sunday evening, as teams searched for an individual missing after the evacuation of a psychiatric hospital in the path of the fire.

Close to midnight, officials said the blaze was still not completely under control and firefighting efforts would continue throughout the night.

The fire, believed to be the biggest in the outskirts of Jerusalem in recent years, forced the evacuation of at least 10,000 people in six towns west of the capital: Beit Meir, Ksalon, Ramat Raziel, Shoresh, Sho’eva, and Givat Ye’arim.

The staff and patients at Eitanim, a psychiatric hospital located just outside Givat Ye’arim, were also evacuated to another hospital. During the transfer, staff lost contact with two patients, though one, Alex Shechtman, a 62-year-old resident of Alon Moreh, was located just before midnight. Police said they were still seeking public help in finding Shabtai Shimon Segal, 25, from Ma’aleh Adumim.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the site of the fires late Sunday evening and received updates from police and firefighting officials.

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“At this time, we appear to be heading in a positive direction in terms of controlling the flames,” Bennett said shortly after 11 p.m. “But it must be said, it’s not over until it’s over.”

Huge Jerusalem-area wildfire burns into the night as police hunt for missing man

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with officials battling a huge wildfire outside Jerusalem on August 15, 2021 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Bennett said the firefighting planes and helicopters would halt operations overnight and restart only at 6 a.m. “We hope that throughout the morning and afternoon, we will be able to control the fire.”

Fire and Rescue Services Jerusalem District Commander Nissim Twito said earlier Sunday that 60-70 firefighting teams and 12 planes and helicopters were battling the flames.

A 32-year-old firefighter was injured while battling flames near Shoresh on Sunday evening, and was treated at the scene before being transferred to Ichilov Medical Center in moderate condition.

An unnamed fire-and-rescue official quoted by Channel 13 said the massive blaze was likely sparked by humans. The official said, however, that it is not yet clear whether it was arson or negligence.

Strong winds combined with the hot, dry weather were fanning the flames, rapidly spreading the fire. Early assessments showed extensive damage caused to much of the area.

Huge Jerusalem-area wildfire burns into the night as police hunt for missing man

Emergency services at the site of a fire which broke out in a forest near Beit Meir, outside of Jerusalem on August 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eliyahu Bash, CEO of the Metsudah Winery in Givat Ye’arim, told the Walla news site that the winery was completely destroyed in the blaze.

“It’s completely gone, there isn’t even a cork left,” said Bash. “The entire building went up in flames, there isn’t a single thing left,” he said, noting that there were 30,000 bottles awaiting wine that were destroyed. “But we’ll get back up and we’ll be even better, and that’s it.”

Zohar, a resident of Ramat Raziel, told Walla that four homes in the town caught fire and suffered significant damage.

???????? The huge forest fire west of #Jerusalem now. Thousands are being evacuated from the villages and communities in its path. 10 fire fighting planes and firemen from across the country are battling the blaze thats out of control. #PrayForJerusalem

— Eretz Israel (@EretzIsrael) August 15, 2021

Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the military to assist firefighters in battling the blaze, his office said.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, firefighters and search-and-rescue troops from the Home Front Command, along with the elite helicopter-borne Unit 669 rescue detachment, were deployed to the Jerusalem hills, west of the capital.

The National Emergency Management Authority opened a command center to coordinate the government’s response to combat the fire outside Jerusalem, the Defense Ministry said.

שמורת הר טייסים, נשבר הלב.
צילום: בוריס קריפק רשות הטבע והגנים

— نير حسون Nir Hasson ניר חסון (@nirhasson) August 15, 2021

NEMA said it would work with the various ministries and government bodies involved in the firefighting effort, including the Public Security Ministry, Fire and Rescue Services, ambulance services, IDF and police.

Earlier Sunday, Bennett said residents would be evacuated from their homes “if there was any doubt” whether they could be in the path of the blaze. The prime minister also said he would weigh if there was a need to accept offers of firefighting assistance from other countries.

Sunday’s fire was the second major blaze in the area this month.

A fire on August 3 also forced dozens of people to evacuate their homes. Despite the ongoing heatwave, the local fire chief said that blaze was likely started by people, rather than the weather.

In June, several fires broke out in areas near Jerusalem, forcing the evacuation of homes, with authorities suspecting that the blazes had been set deliberately by Palestinians.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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