Israel's worst ever forest fire kills 36

MEGADIM, Israel — Dozens of Israeli guards trying to rescue prisoners threatened by the worst forest fire in the country's history died Thursday when their bus became trapped in the same inferno.

As the guards raced toward the prison holding mostly Palestinians, a lone tree fell across the road, blocking their path. With no way out, many of them were burned alive inside the vehicle. Others perished while trying to flee the flames fed by brush left tinder-dry by lack of rain.

When the smoke cleared, at least 36 were dead.

"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The flames forced 12,000 people from their homes, leveled a village and threatened to cause irreparable harm to one of Israel's few forested areas. The fire was still burning out of control near midnight.

Israel issued a rare call for international assistance, a measure of the severity of the disaster. Turkey put aside recent tensions to pledge aid, and Netanyahu's office said Greece, Spain and Cyprus agreed to send firefighting helicopters. Additional aid was coming from Britain, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Romania, Jordan and Bulgaria.

Fire officials said the blaze had blackened about 1,600 acres.

Police also evacuated a university, three prisons and a hospital.

Investigators speculated that the fire could have been sparked accidentally, or it might have been deliberately set. But they largely ruled out any sort of attack by a Palestinian group.

The fire broke out around midday and quickly spread, fanned by unusually hot and dry conditions. Israel experienced an exceptionally warm summer and has had little rain during the normally wet autumn.

Fourteen bodies were found near the charred bus 10 hours after the blaze began.

Israel's appeal was a rare call for international assistance. The Jewish state is better known for sending its own rescue teams and medical personnel to other countries to help in their disaster-relief efforts.

After nightfall, Netanyahu flew over the fire to inspect the damage. Speaking at the firefighters' command post, he said the blaze was of "international proportions."

He said the arrival of equipment from abroad today could be decisive, but crews could not resume work until daybreak.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military to make all its resources available to fight the fire and rescue victims.