Tens of thousands of Israelis have been fleeing wildfires in the northern city of Haifa, with the prime minister warning that any proof of arson would be treated as "terrorism".

Dry conditions after a two-month drought, in addition to strong winds, have fuelled the fires, which have also spread to other parts of the country.

Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said that anyone who may have started fires deliberately would be punished.

"We are facing arsonist terror. In front of arsonist terror we are also facing incitement and also arson. For us they are the same. And we will bring our full legal force to get those responsible," he said.

"It's a crime in every possible way and for us, it is also terror in every possible way. People can get burned. It has already happened."

Thousands evacuated

The smoke, which has transformed Haifa's skyline, forced authorities to order about 80,000 people to leave the city, where several homes have been destroyed.

Firefighters were working to douse the flames but some homes in the worst-affected areas were already beyond repair.

The main highway between Haifa and Tel Aviv shut down for some time on Thursday, while authorities tried to put out the flames.

Emergency personnel evacuated elderly people in the northern areas of Haifa [Baz Ratner/Reuters]

Homes have also been damaged in fires affecting parts of the occupied West Bank and in an area close to Jerusalem, where some properties were lost in the blaze.

Israeli authorities arrested four Israeli Palestinians, but a judge released them soon afterwards citing a lack of evidence.

Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said: "At the moment we are investigating how the fires began. We strongly believe that the fires could have been started by individuals who fled the scenes.

"There are a number of reports that we've received, and therefore, at the moment we are continuing to both put out the flames, deal with the major situation which is taking place in and around the city of Haifa."

Several nations, including Turkey, have offered assistance, as more strong winds were predicted in the coming days.

 

Source: Al Jazeera News