JERUSALEM — A bus evacuating people from a massive forest fire Thursday in northern Israel went up in flames, killing dozens of guards who were helping to rescue inmates from a prison, officials said.
Fire officials said the blaze, which torched some 800 acres (325 hectares) and was one of the deadliest accidents in the country’s history, remained out of control as nightfall arrived.
“This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
He said the government was using all means at its disposal to contain the blaze.
The fire in the northern Carmel region broke out around midday, and within hours, authorities were clearing the area of hundreds of residents, as well as Palestinian inmates from a prison.
During the evacuation, a bus from the prison went up in flames. TV footage showed the charred skeleton of the bus, with dozens of bodies lying on the ground.
Yoram Levy, a spokesman for the national fire service, said some 40 people were killed as a result of the fire, most of them from the bus accident.
He said officials suspected the fire erupted after people were burning garbage.
In a statement, Israel’s prison service said the bus was carrying guards “on their way to help in the rescue activities” at the Damun prison.
Eli Bin, a spokesman for the Mada rescue service, said just three people survived the bus crash, and all suffered severe burns.
Israel has experienced an exceptionally hot summer and has had little rain this autumn, allowing the blaze to quickly spread.
“There is a fire burning, and we are not in control of these areas,” said Yona Yahav, mayor of the northern city of Haifa. “It’s a sad day for the country.”