Fire forces evacuation of Israel's Yad Vashem

IAN DEITCH - Associated Press
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A fire plane drops red fire retardant to try to extinguish fires burning in the forest below Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, seen in background, in Jerusalem Sunday, July 17, 2011. An out of control wildfire has forced the evacuation of Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A wildfire tore through a forest on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Sunday, moving within several hundred yards of Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and sending a huge plume of smoke billowing over parts of the holy city.

Fire service spokesman Boaz Rakia said the fire was under control at nightfall. He said Yad Vashem was not in danger. He said investigators were considering the possibility of arson because of reports that the blaze erupted in several places at once.

Rakia said firefighters would remain on the scene overnight.

"There are still fire points that need to be extinguished but everything is under control," he said.

Estee Yaari, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem, said the 45-acre (18 hectare) campus was evacuated as the blaze approached. Police said the fire was a few hundred yards (meters) from the memorial.

"Everybody was evacuated calmly," Yaari said. "There was a lot of smoke on campus."

Two people required medical treatment, she added.

Yad Vashem is one of Israel's national treasures, home to a museum and memorials for the victims of the Holocaust. Foreign dignitaries routinely stop at Yad Vashem when visiting the country.

The memorial holds some 140 million pages of Holocaust documentation, the world's largest such collection. It also exhibits artifacts, such as shoes, photographs, suitcases and recorded testimonies of Holocaust victims and survivors.

It also has an eternal flame in its "Hall of Remembrance," as well as the "Hall of Names," where it is collecting the identities of the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their sympathizers during World War II.

The fire broke out Sunday in the Jerusalem Forest, a patch of hilly terrain covered by pine trees on the western edge of the city.

The blaze brought back memories of a devastating fire that killed 42 people last December in a forest in northern Israel. Most of the victims were prison guards who were helping in the rescue efforts. Their bus was engulfed in flames, killing them.

That fire burned out of control for four days and was extinguished only after firefighting aircraft from as far away as the U.S. came in to bring it under control.

After that disaster, Israel overhauled its firefighting service and bought firefighting aircraft. Some of them could be seen circling over the Jerusalem fire.