Fire devastates Israeli community founded by Shlomo Carlebach

A fire rages in the Ben Shemen Forest in central Israel, May 23, 2019. Massive fires blazed throughout the country, which is blanketed in a heat wave. (Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel is on red alert over outbreaks of fires across the country, some on a massive scale, amid a massive heat wave. At least one community, founded by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, has been burned to the ground.

Fires on Thursday were out of control in the Jerusalem area, near Hebron and in the center of the country. There has been a full mobilization of firefighters across the country, as well as calls for assistance from volunteer firefighters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his government ministers on Thursday evening to request foreign assistance to put out the blazes, including air support to help in the effort.

Earlier in the day, Southern District Fire Department Chief Shmulik Friedman said the country could request air assistance from Cyprus, Greece and Croatia, according to the Kan national broadcaster.

Homes were evacuated in Beit Hagai, in the southern Hebron Hills in the West Bank and in at least five other communities.

In Mevo Modiim, the central Israel community founded by Carlebach in 1975, residents were evacuated and most of the homes reportedly have been burned to the ground. Carlebach, best known as a composer of Jewish music and as spiritual leader to religious Jews in the counterculture, lived there and in Canada before his death in 1994.

As of Thursday evening, an out-of-control fire in the Ben Shemen Forest continued to burn. Route 443 connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was closed in both directions due to fires in and around Jerusalem, as were several other roads.

In Beitar Ilit, an apartment building caught fire and several people including a mother and her children had to be rescued by firefighters. Three of them were taken to the hospital with fire-related injuries.

In the extreme heat wave that has blanketed Israel for several days, temperatures hit the 100s on Thursday a day after they hovered in the high 90s. They are forecast to climb as high as 110 to 115 by Friday throughout most of the Jewish state. The hot and dry weather had led to fears of widespread fires.

Some of the fires were sparked by embers from Lag b’Omer bonfires on Wednesday night that were not properly or completely extinguished, according to officials.

Israel Railways announced on Thursday that the extremely hot weather could cause delays and disruptions in train service throughout the country since the high temperatures cause the steel on the railway tracks to expand, slowing the trains.

Meanwhile, several fires are burning in communities in southern Israel located near the Gaza border. Fire officials said that some of those blazes were sparked by balloons carrying explosives sent from Gaza. The fires have destroyed dozens of acres of woodlands and burned up a wheat field outside of Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

On Wednesday, the incendiary balloons started at least six fires.