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Israel's Haifa Fire Caused By Teen's Water Pipe, Police Say

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JERUSALEM — The worst forest fire in Israel's history has produced a new hero for the country – a police chief hailed for her bravery and self-sacrifice in rushing into the flames to accompany rescuers.

The death Monday of Police Chief Ahuva Tomer from her burns comes amid widespread Israeli anger and disappointment with their leaders' handling of the fire, which took 42 lives and burned half of one of the country's most popular forests.

Tomer's patrol car was engulfed by flames minutes after she was interviewed on national TV in one of the iconic images of the five-day saga.

Late Monday, police announced they had identified a 14-year-old boy as the "prime suspect" in the blaze. Authorities said the fire, all but extinguished Monday, was accidental.

Tomer's ultimate sacrifice brought back images of a bygone era when leaders were seen as selfless heroes.

"Her last moment, when her car touched the fire, she looked out at us," President Shimon Peres said in a eulogy for Tomer. "That's a moment none of us will forget ... a high point in her bravery."

Tomer, 53, was following a bus of prison guards on their way to evacuate prisoners from a jail Thursday when her car and the bus were engulfed by the flames. Minutes later, Israeli media reported, a desperate Tomer radioed to say she was on fire. Thirty-seven people on the bus were killed.

Throughout the weekend, newscasts carried frequent updates on her condition and images of her final interview. Her death dominated newscasts throughout the day.

Several thousand people attended her funeral in Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, where she had been police chief since last year. Colleagues praised her leadership and friends said that Tomer devoted herself to the police force.

"I lived with Ahuva for 20 years, but I lived on the sidelines, because her first love was the Israeli police," said Danny Rosen, Tomer's longtime partner, at the hospital where she was treated.

In interviews given minutes before she was injured, Tomer appeared unsettled but determined, her sunglasses perched atop her brown cropped hair.

She spoke of the pain of seeing the forest burn and, nodding ruefully, added, "It's heartbreaking. It looks like it will last a long time." She then drove off toward the fire zone.

Israeli TV played the video clips repeatedly throughout the day.

Tomer, who was born in the Soviet Union and came to Israel as a toddler, was a 30-year veteran of the police force and was seen as a groundbreaker for female police officers.

She was named chief of Haifa's police station, Israel's largest, in 2009 – the first woman to hold the position. She was the most senior female field officer in the police and was promoted posthumously to brigadier-general. Her deputy was also a woman, a rarity in the force.

In 1999, Tomer was investigated on charges of fraud, but after a five-year inquiry, a court concluded that prosecutors had wrongly accused her, and she returned to the force.

Israeli channels interrupted regular programming to show her funeral live. Uniformed police carried her flag-draped coffin. A long procession of attendees laid wreaths on the grave.

"Even after she was injured, she proved how much of a leader she is in her soul," said Israeli police commissioner David Cohen. "She didn't leave us until she knew the fire was put out."

Politicians and government ministers also appeared at the funeral amid growing criticism that the crisis was poorly handled.

Firefighters ran out of fire retardant chemicals hours after the blaze broke out Thursday. Israel doesn't have a single firefighting plane and only 1,400 firefighters at its disposal – well below the worldwide average.

Israel was forced to appeal to other countries to send planes and material to put out the fire, which burned a 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) area in the Carmel forest, a popular nature spot on Haifa's outskirts. The fire was brought under control late Sunday, and further weakened Monday after overnight rains.

Israel's vulnerability prompted critics to ask whether the nation's leaders could cope with far more serious challenges, like rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militants or a nuclear-armed Iran.

Much of the backlash is aimed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a politician from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party whose office oversees fire services. Netanyahu said Monday he would set up a special task force to address the shortfalls encountered during the fire.

A state comptroller's report on the condition of the firefighting services is due in the next few days. The comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, issued a critical report of Israel's firefighting capabilities after a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Although the blaze was small by international standards, the fire has rocked Israel, where only 7 percent of the land is wooded. More than 50,000 people have joined a Facebook group pledging to replant the forest.

A 14-year-old boy arrested Monday has admitted to setting the fire accidentally and was now the main suspect, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

The boy told police he had been smoking a water pipe Thursday and threw some burning coals into an open area in the Carmel forest. He said he panicked, fled the scene and returned to school without telling anyone, Rosenfeld said.

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