16 homes destroyed, thousands evacuated as firestorms rage on

'Massive damage' as fires continue to burn uncontrolled in central Israel, destroying homes and forcing mass evacuations.

David Rosenberg ,

Firefighters battle blaze next to Kibbutz Harel
Firefighters battle blaze next to Kibbutz Harel
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from their homes and at least sixteen houses destroyed Thursday as fires rage out of control in central and southern Israel.

Eighty firefighter units, twelve planes, and two helicopters have been deployed in an effort to contain the two largest fires currently raging – one in the Jerusalem corridor west of the capital, near Kibbutz Harel 4.5 miles north of Beit Shemesh; the second in the Ben Shemen forest near Route 443.

Homes have been reported as destroyed in both Kibbutz Harel and Mevo Modim, which sits near the Ben Shemen forest and just off of Route 443.

Residents from Harel, Mevo Modim, and a number of towns near Mevo Modim – including Gimzu, Kfar Daniel, and even Shilat – have been evacuated in part or entirely. Current estimates put the number of evacuated residents at about 3,500.

Officials say the Ben Shemen forest, a major nature preserve near the densely-populated coastal region, suffered “massive damage” in the fire.

“Massive damage not only to the forest but also to the animals,” said Gilad Mastai, the Jewish National Fund’s regional manager. “A very wide area of the forest was burned.”

“We never expected such a terrible blow after we spent all night going through the forest removing people who had lit bonfires. It is difficult to estimate how many trees were destroyed and burned. This is one of the worst fires ever to hit a forest in central Israel.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu instructed the Public Security Ministry, National Security Council, and even the Foreign Ministry to coordinate efforts to bring aerial assistance - potentially including help from abroad - to extinguish the fires.

Earlier on Thursday, fires were also reported in southern Israel, including near the Gaza-border town of Karmia.

Earlier on Thursday, the town of Beit Haggai in the Mount Hebron area was partially evacuated and six residents injured from smoke inhalation after a large fire broke out near the town.