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Haifa chief is hailed as hero in fire

The 1st woman to head the Israeli city's force succumbed to burns.

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 at 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 boy, 14, 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.

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 the city of Haifa, where she had been police chief since last year. Colleagues praised her leadership, and friends said Tomer devoted herself to her work.

"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 partner.

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 seen as a groundbreaker for female police officers.

She was named Haifa's chief in 2009 - the first woman to hold the position.

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