Developing: 80,000 evacuated around Haifa; Shin Bet and Police investigating background, Police Chief says not all fires caused by arson.
Erdan said he hoped that over the course of the night that the winds would not strengthen and fuel the flames.
Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the country during a live broadcast, saying that any of the fires sweeping across Israel that were lit by arsonists should be considered as acts of terrorism, and will be dealt with accordingly.
Netanyahu's comments came at a press conference in Haifa, where tens of thousands of residents were evacuated from their homes because of the spreading flames. 80,000 residents have now been told to evacuate.
“I want to say as clearly as possible, any fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism, and we will deal with it accordingly. That is my directives to the security services - we will deal with all acts of lawlessness,” he said. “Anyone who tries or will try to burn parts of Israel will be punished with all severity.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who joined Netanyahu for a briefing on the situation along with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, said it is clear that a large part of the fires were the result of arson. He said that a number of suspects have been arrested, and that teams have been set up to investigate each of the fires.
Netanyahu said there were currently 15 fires. Police have reported over 200 since Tuesday.
Erdan pledged that the investigations will be thorough and punishment meted out in order to create deterrence, not only to those lighting the fires, but also to those on social media inciting others to do so.
Netanyahu said that he has issued directives to bring to Israel the world's largest firefighting aircraft, the Supertanker, from the US. He said it will only be used in extreme situations, but that it was better to have more capabilities than necessary, rather than not enough.
The premier said that Israel's squadron of some 12 firefighting aircraft was not enough, and that he turned to other countries for assistance. By midnight, he said, a total of 10 planes will have arrived from Russia, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Turkey. The Supertanker, however, is the only plane with the capabilities to operate at night, and will arrive in approximately 28 hours.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Israel Police announced Thursday afternoon that they have detained a number of suspects on suspicion of arson.
The University of Haifa was also evacuated on as a precautionary move as fires raged closer. According to latest figures, there were 30 reports of light injury due to smoke inhalation.
Police Chief Roni Alsheich said on Thursday that only those in neighborhoods affected should leave their homes, in order to leave important traffic arteries free for those who need to evacuate quickly, as well as for the use of emergency services.
Alsheich said residents in neighborhoods which are in need of evacuation would receive automatic SMS notifications.
He added that not all fires will be connected to arson, and said that these rumors will only strengthen the hand of those who seek to cause more terror.
In addition, trains between the northern towns of Binyamina and Hadera were halted at the request of fire and rescue services as fires neared the railway tracks in the Caesarea region.
Seven firefighting teams were also working to control a fire approaching the Rishonim junction near the central town of Rishon Lezion and prevent it from reaching nearby warehouses and a gas station.
On Thursday morning, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio that 50% of these fires were caused by repeated arson.
Also on Army Radio, Shimon Ben Ner, a senior Haifa firefighter, said "I know for a fact that they tried to set fire to the department's station in Haifa deliberately to cause the Haifa fire department to be paralyzed."
Earlier Thursday morning, authorities evacuated residents from several streets in the city's northern Mount Carmel neighborhood of Romema. Additional fires broke out in the Ramot Sappir neighborhood of Haifa, prompting a nearby kindergarten to evacuate.
Fires also broke out in an open field bordering Haifa's main fire station. Flames from burning brush spread to parked cars and nearby warehouses, and has crossed the road. Highway 22 and the Paz Bridge have both been closed to traffic, and the police reported two injuries in the area. All forces were working to control the flames.
Additionally, the Israel Electric Company declared a state of alert. Several power-lines and company substations were damaged due to the fires, resulting in temporary power cuts and other safety issues. Another fire erupted in the vicinity of the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera.
The police spokesman also reported a renewal of a fire in Talmon, a settlement in the West Bank east of Modi'in. Several structures, porches, and gas cylinders were ablaze, spreading to nearby yards and houses. The town's residents were evacuated.
Another fire broke out in Modi'in, the Israeli Police Foreign Press Office reported Thursday morning. Four police cars, eight fire trucks, and two planes were dispatched to handle the fire and prevent injury to residents. Several Modi'in schools were closed, and the Klil Hahoresh, Dotan Valley, and Yair Peleg roads were closed to traffic.
Sections of road 443 near Shilat junction were closed to traffic Thursday morning due to the fire raging near Neve Ilan. The road was reopened shortly thereafter.
(Image from a police helicopter in the Modiin area. Photo: Police Foreign Press Office)
Four planes and 49 staff members have arrived from Cyprus and Greece to aid in fighting the fire. Minister Erdan was due to meet with the pilots who came from Greece overnight.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Wednesday’s fire in Nataf started shortly after 9 a.m., adding that four suspects who may have started the conflagration are being questioned, and will appear before a Jerusalem court Thursday morning.
“The fire quickly spread from a road where construction was being done, and police and fire crews immediately responded,” said Rosenfeld. “Over 200 people were evacuated from the area, where approximately six houses went up in flames. Thankfully, there were no injuries.”
Rosenfeld said 30 fire crews, aided by at least six planes and a police helicopter, battled that blaze for nearly six hours, finally containing it on Wednesday evening.
Asked if there appeared to be a connection between the blazes, Rosenfeld said multiple investigations have been opened to determine if they were triggered by weather conditions or foul play.
Meanwhile, the Immigration Absorption Ministry opened a situation room to help immigrants who need help because of the fire, and an emergency hotline, which can be reached at *2994 or 03-9733333.
Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver made her way to the Haifa International Conference Center to meet with immigrants.