RAF search and rescue helicopters have joined an international effort to contain a massive forest fire in Israel, dropping 85,000 tons of water onto the blaze near the city of Haifa.
Two Griffin helicopters were deployed from the UK base at Akrotiri in Cyprus after Israeli authorities appealed for international assistance to deal with the biggest fire in the country’s history, which has claimed at least 41 lives and forced thousands of people from their homes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the UK for its help in a phone call with David Cameron.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Cameron had “extended his sincere condolences and great sympathies” and said the UK was “glad to be able to help through the deployment of two UK helicopters based in Cyprus”.
The spokesman added: “Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked the British Government for the help; Britain had been amongst the first nations to provide assistance.”
Seven crew are manning the British helicopters from 84 Squadron of the RAF, flying over the blazing forest to dump water on to the flames.
Speaking from Israel, RAF Flight Lieutenant Euan Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “We have flown a total of six sorties – over nine hours of flying time – today and approximately 85 tons of water have been dropped by UK forces.
“We are happy to report that we have extinguished at least 75% of the fire that we saw this morning, in conjunction with forces from Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. We are well on the way to getting the fire completely under control.”
Describing the scenes which greeted the British team on their arrival in Israel, Flt Lt Johnson said: “It is of monumental scale. It’s the biggest fire that I have ever seen and the biggest fire that any of these crews from the UK forces have ever tackled. The smoke in the sky obliterated the vast majority of the horizon as we approached Haifa. It was very difficult to distinguish exactly where the sea began and the sky stopped.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his condolences for the deaths and promised Britain would do “whatever it can” to help Israeli emergency services get the fires under control.