Emergency services at the site of a fire which broke out in a forest near Beit Meir, outside of Jerusalem on August 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Houses were burning in the town of Ramat Raziel outside Jerusalem on Sunday, as a huge forest fire forced thousands of residents in six communities to evacuate their homes and emergency services fought to control the flames.

The fire, about 13 kilometers (8 miles) west of the capital, sent a huge pall of smoke across the city that blocked out the afternoon sun. Fire and Rescue Services Jerusalem District Commander Nissim Twito said the blaze may be the biggest in recent years in the area. Twito said 60-70 firefighting teams and 12 planes and helicopters were battling the flames.

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A 32-year-old firefighter was injured while battling flames near Shoresh on Sunday evening, and was treated at the scene before being transferred to Ichilov Medical Center in moderate condition.

An unnamed fire-and-rescue official quoted by Channel 13 said the massive blaze was likely sparked by humans. The official said, however, that it is not yet clear whether it was arson or negligence.

A brush fire west of Jerusalem, August 15, 2021. (Ariel Kedem/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Strong winds combined with the hot, dry weather were fanning the flames, rapidly spreading the fire. Residents in Beit Meir, Ksalon, Ramat Raziel, Shoresh, Sho’eva and Givat Ye’arim were asked to evacuate their homes as a precaution. The Eitanim psychiatric hospital was also evacuated of all staff and patients; two patients went missing during the transfer to other local hospitals. Police spokesman Eli Levi told Army Radio that at least 10,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.

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Eight firefighting planes and four helicopters were dumping retardant onto the fire as emergency units from other regions streamed to the area to assist local services. According to the Kan public broadcaster, at least three people were being treated for smoke inhalation.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze which broke out in a forest near near Beit Meir, outside of Jerusalem on August 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Local officials said Sunday evening that the flames in Beit Meir, Shoresh, Sho’eva and Ksalon were largely under control, but that the blaze in Ramat Raziel and Givat Ye’arim was still burning, in part because of heavy winds. Firefighting officials said they expected to remain in the area all night tackling the blaze.

Smoke from a forest fire spread across Jerusalem, August 15, 2021. (Mick Weinstein/Times of Israel)

The Route 395 and 3955 highways that run through the area were closed to traffic due to the fires.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the military to assist firefighters in battling the blaze, his office said.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, firefighters and search-and-rescue troops from the Home Front Command, along with the elite helicopter-borne Unit 669 rescue detachment, were deployed to the Jerusalem hills, west of the capital.

“A number of aircraft have also been dispatched for reconnaissance operations in the area,” the IDF said. A police helicopter was also sent to assist in the aerial effort, police said.

The National Emergency Management Authority opened a command center to coordinate the government’s response to combat the fire outside Jerusalem, the Defense Ministry said.

NEMA said it would work with the various ministries and government bodies involved in the firefighting effort, including the Public Security Ministry, Fire and Rescue Services, ambulance services, IDF and police.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews stroll through the Machane Yehuda market under a sky darkened by nearby wildfires, in Jerusalem, August 15, 2021. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev was at the scene of the fire, meeting with the head of the Fire and Rescue Services and local police commanders to coordinate the firefighting and evacuation efforts.

Greece offered to send assistance to Israel in battling the flames, shortly after Israeli firefighting planes returned from aiding Greece in controlling its own forest fires.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ended the security cabinet meeting early on Sunday in order to focus attention on dealing with the fire. After a consultation with ministers, police, IDF and fire officials, Bennett said residents would be evacuated from their homes “if there was any doubt” they could be in the path of the blaze.

The prime minister also said he would weigh if there was a need to accept offers of firefighting assistance from other countries.

Residents of Jerusalem and surrounding areas shared photos of the ominous cloud of smoke that reached over the city.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said it was monitoring air pollution in the area due to the high level of smoke, in particular in southwestern Jerusalem. The ministry said that as of Sunday evening, despite the visible smoke, the air quality in the capital remained within acceptable levels.

Sunday’s fire was the second major blaze in the area this month.

A fire on August 3 also forced dozens of people to evacuate their homes. Despite the ongoing heatwave, the local fire chief said that blaze was likely started by people rather than the weather.

In June several fires broke out in areas near Jerusalem, forcing the evacuation of homes, with authorities suspecting the blazes were deliberately set by Palestinians.

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