At least 40 people were killed in what officials described a historic "firestorm" near Israel`s port city of Haifa on Thursday, according to Xinhua.

A bus loaded with police and prison guards heading to a security prison near the conflagration lost control and turned over, prison service officials said, adding the guards were trying to reach the endangered Damon facility to help evacuate the prisoners.

Around 500 prisoners in the Damon prison were reported to have been safely evacuated earlier in the afternoon.

Magen David Adom rescue crews and firefighters fought to reach survivors trapped in the vehicle among the flames.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Thursday asked a few European countries to send firefighting aircraft to help fight the blaze. Ten planes are now on their way from Cyprus, Greece and Spain. Israel has no such aircraft of it`s own by far.

There are reports of many casualties among the firefighters.

Netanyahu commended the firefighters and offered his condolences to the families of the victims in a live broadcast to the nation, and said "we should learn a lesson, in order to be able to deal with similar future events."

There are three major areas on fire as of 10:30 p.m. local time (2030 GMT), according to Channel Two television.

Fire officials told Army Radio that it was the worst fire they` ve dealt with in decades, adding that the fire may become one of the most severe natural disasters in Israel`s history.

People injured in the blaze have been transferred to several hospitals across the north of the country, officials said.

The fire broke out early Thursday in the Carmel mountain range overlooking the city, which deteriorated into a huge blaze with thick smoke after several hours, forcing the evacuation of people from schools, houses and the nearby prison.

The spreading smoke and ash "looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud," one local resident told the Ynet news site Thursday afternoon.

Video clips from the scene show white ash covering roads in the area, and fire crews battling numerous brush fires, glimpsed through thick drifting smoke.

"We`re praying for a miracle for the wounded," Israel President Shimon Peres said of the still-developing event early Thursday evening while attending a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.

Eyal Caspi, commanding officer of the Herzliya, Ramat HaSharon and Kfar Shmaryahu Fire and Rescue Stations told Xinhua that he was en route with two trucks. Crews arrived from other parts of the country to bolster local forces.

So far, at least seven square km of highly flammable pine forests and brush have gone up in flames, foresters told local media.

Some 40 fire crews are battling the spreading flames, as six crop dusters deployed to the area are trying to wet down the area with repeated water drops from above, local media reported earlier in the afternoon.

Fire officials say they don`t expect to be able to douse the flames until morning. A major coastal road was closed due to advancing flames at around six p.m. local time (1600 GMT).

Haifa Fire Service spokesman Hezi Levi told Ynet that the wind is making it harder for the firefighters to control the blaze, saying "the wind is confusing the firefighters and making it very difficult for them."

People have withdrawn from a campus of Haifa University, the Druze village of Usfiya, a few nearby Kibbutz and a spa resort, so far.

"The feeling is traumatic. There`s lots of hysteria in the streets. From our window, we can see the illumination flares that are fired into the sky (to assist the rescue teams). It feels like war," Adi, a student of Haifa University, said during a phone interview.

The Kibbutz Beit Oren, which is among the first places evacuated, has been completely destroyed by the fire. Other towns and resort hotels in the area may be next in line if firefighters don`t succeed in gaining control of the flames, officials warned.

The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority is working to evacuate wildlife at a nature preserve under fire.

The Israeli Health Ministry is instructing residents in the area not immediately threatened by the flames to stay inside due to the smoke and possible poisonous chemicals.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav is at the fire crews` field headquarters, monitoring the progress of the flames to evaluate if any areas of Israel`s third largest city will require evacuation.

Yahav told Army Radio that dozens of lookouts have been posted on the outskirts of Haifa, which lies immediately northward of the blaze.

Fire Brigade officials said during the afternoon that they had not yet ascertained the cause of the blaze. The area engulfed by flames contains dry brush which burns easily, and the unusually warm, dry windy weather likely played a role in fanning the flames.

However, officials later in the evening said there were three major areas where the fire seemed to have began, according to Channel Two television. There was some speculation that the fires were set intentionally, according to Israel Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of arson at this stage," Rosenfeld told Xinhua, adding that there are three avenues of investigation. Such a police inquiry usually implies accidental, criminal and nationalistic motives.

A police source told Ynet, as well, that they are investigating the possibility that a private dump in Usfiya may have been burning trash earlier in the day.

Referring to the dump, Yahav said, "it was just a matter of time until a disaster occurred."

Israel has coped with several large fires in the last several months, but they were in rural areas, with few if any victims. This is the first time the country deals with a natural disaster with so many casualties, of this size and scope, and so close to a major urban area.

 by Dave Bender, Xinhua