For a third successive night, firefighters were battling against time and weather conditions in the hopes of bringing under control a series of devastating fires in the Solea region that have claimed the lives of two men, injured three others and caused untold environmental damage to forests and rural communities.
As darkness fell, the support of some 17 firefighting aircraft from Cyprus, Greece, Israel, the UK and Italy was withdrawn, leaving ground units comprising around 60 vehicles and hundreds of state personnel and volunteers to fight the flames overnight.
No homes were in danger, the fire services said.
Three aircraft, including two Canadairs with the necessary personnel, dispatched from France, arrived at Andreas Papandreou air-force base in Paphos late on Tuesday in order to assist with putting out the blaze. “It took nine hours for these aircraft to reach Cyprus,” French ambassador to Cyprus Rene Troccaz said. “Following co-ordination, the French force will be folded into the Republic of Cyprus’ operational plan,” he said.
The air units will begin again at around 5am.
Cyprus also asked Russia for help. A source from the Russian Embassy in Nicosia told CNA the request was put forward by the Minister of Agriculture Nicos Kouyialis. “We confirm that we have received a request to provide help. It was immediately forwarded to Moscow and we are waiting for a response,” the source noted.
Turkey also announced on Tuesday evening it was ready to send two helicopters and an aircraft from Mersin and Antalya to help fight the fire, its minster for Forestry and Water Veysel Eroglu said.
“The forests are common property of all mankind,” he said in a written statement. “We always stand ready to help extinguish fires in neighbouring countries. We will not neglect to offer our assistance in the event of a request from southern Cyprus.”
The message was passed to President Nicos Anastasiades by Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, a statement from the presidential palace said.
Anastasiades replied that the Republic of Cyprus would accept Turkey’s help, provided that it was folded into the government’s operational planning under which the other international players were operating. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus.
The fires were still raging out of control on Tuesday evening but firefighters were making headway in Spilia and Kourdali where houses had been under threat earlier. They were also battling at Asinou and Kannavia, the fire department said.
“Today I believe that we will manage to close the issue in Spilia-Kourdali and our forces are already gathering in the other direction… Kannavia,” forestry spokesman Andreas Christou told CNA.
According to the Forestry Department’s head Takis Tsintides, firebreaks are being created to help contain the Kannavia front. “My people tell me these have been finished, so we should be able to keep the fire in check by the morning,” he told state TV. “At around 5:30am the aircraft should be here. They take off at 5:10, they should be here by 5:30.”
Earlier, the intense flames had fiery front had threatened properties in Kourdali, he said “but firefighting forces managed to limit its expansion”. One firefighter in Kourdali was taken to Kyperounda hospital suffering from smoke inhalation and kept in for precautionary reasons.
Many villagers refused to leave their homes and have spent their time watching warily in case their properties were threatened but mostly helping the effort by providing food and refreshments to firefighters.
Two firefighters have died since the forest blaze – perhaps the biggest ever – which broke out on Sunday midday in Evrychou when someone is suspected to have set fire to dry grass.
Fanned by strong winds and aided by high temperatures of over 40C, the fire has so far destroyed some 15 square kilometres of mostly pine forest.
The rugged terrain made it close to impossible for ground forces to approach the flames, which firefighters tried to tackle from the air.
Christou said water-dropping aircraft resumed their operations on Tuesday morning to extinguish the huge fire. The aircraft cannot operate at night.
Thick smoke covered the entire area, making the work of the aircraft somewhat difficult on Tuesday.
Unconfirmed media reports earlier in the day said explosions could be heard in the Spilia area, which people attributed to munitions left behind since the 1955-1959 EOKA struggle against colonial ruler Britain.
“We have divided the fire to two fronts: the north front, which is the Asinou area, and the south front, that is the Spilia area,” Kouyialis said earlier in the day. The situation was evaluated every two hours, the minister said.
Following a visit at the coordinating centre set up in Galata, Anastasiades urged Cypriots to assume their responsibilities to the environment and their compatriots.
“Each one should realise that beyond ‘me’ there is ‘us,’ beyond their house there is the natural environment, communities, people,” he said. “No one can, either by experimenting or by disobeying the law, to carry out such destructive acts.”
The two firefighters, Marios Aristotelous, 44, and 49-year-old Andreas Sofocleous were killed on Sunday when the water tanker they were in tumbled into a 20-metre ravine. A third firefighter was in critical condition after his vehicle overturned.
Anastasiades, expressed his deep condolences to the families of the deceased reassuring that the state would stand by them.
“I want to express my sadness because beyond the ecological disaster and tragedy, we’ve had the loss of lives,” he said. “My thoughts are with the families of the victims. If it is any consolation, I want to say that the state will stand by their side.”
The broader area contains a cluster of 10 well-conserved painted churches dating from the Byzantine era which are on the UNECSO World Heritage list.
“They are not in danger, we are protecting them,” fire service spokesman Leonidas Leonidou told Reuters.
On Wednesday the cabinet is expected to meet to discuss a programme for reforestation and one for aid to those affected by the fires.