JERUSALEM -- A bus burst into flames as it raced to an Israeli prison during a massive forest fire Thursday, killing dozens of prison guards participating in the rescue mission, officials said. It was one of the deadliest accidents in the nation's history.
Fire officials said the blaze, which torched some 800 acres (325 hectares), remained out of control as nightfall arrived.
"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. He said the government was using all means at its disposal to contain the blaze, and he appealed to Cyprus, Italy, Russia and Greece to provide backup.
Fire commissioner Shimon Romach told Israel Radio that the country didn't have enough planes or helicopters, and that the available aircraft had trouble working at night.
The fire in the northern Carmel region broke out around midday, prompting authorities to clear the area of hundreds of residents, as well as Palestinian inmates from the Damun prison.
A bus headed to the prison went up in flames. TV footage showed the charred skeleton of the bus, with several bodies lying on the ground. No inmates were reported injured.
Yaron Zamir, a spokesman for the national prison service, said the men were guards but did not work at the prison. Instead, they had raced from central Israel to assist in the rescue.
He called it a "difficult, sad and incomprehensible day."
Yoram Levy of the national fire service said the death toll from the fire was about 40, most of whom died in the bus accident. He said officials suspected the fire was caused by people burning garbage. Israel Radio reported that two firefighters were missing in a nearby farming community.
Eli Bin, a spokesman for the Mada rescue service, said just three people survived the bus crash, and all suffered severe burns.
Israel has experienced an exceptionally hot summer and has had little rain this autumn, allowing the blaze to quickly spread.
"There is a fire burning, and we are not in control of these areas," said Yona Yahav, mayor of the northern city of Haifa. "It's a sad day for the country."