By Peter Stevenson and George Psyllides
FIREFIGHTERS were due to remain in the area of several Larnaca villages overnight on Wednesday following a series of devastating fires that swept close to the villages of Choirokitia. Skarinou and Ayios Theodoros, scorching kilometres of land, and threatening homes.
The fires burned out cars, machinery, a concrete plant and an outpost of the National Guard that was manned by three soldiers who managed to distance themselves in time.
The Nicosia-Limassol highway was also closed for six hours due to thick smoke which affected some drivers. Residents of several villages were moved to central locations such as town halls and churches temporarily. No injuries were reported but several people were treated throughout the day for smoke inhalation.
By midnight, the fires in the three villages were almost under control, but a small pocket in Ayios Theodoros still posed a threat, Deputy Fire Chief Markos Trangolas said. “A strong fire service presence will remain in the area for precautionary reasons,” he said.
But a second series of fires was raging out of control on Wednesday in the Limassol district. Fire service spokeswoman Lisa Kemidji said seven fire trucks had to be sent to the area between Pera Pedi and Lofou where fire broke out at around 9.15pm. “The fire began in four simultaneous places just like the earlier fire,” she said. Kemidji referring to Choirokitia. She said that the Limassol fires were not close to residential or forestry areas.
Authorities believe the Choirokitia fire, which was the first to break out on Wednesday, was deliberate, as firefighters found four separate points of origin. A 19-year-old National Guardsman from Kofinou was being questioned by police in connection with the incident. He was being held overnight and is due in court on this morning.
Choirokitia was evacuated early in the day on Wednesday but no sooner was the blaze there brought under control, strong winds carried the fires close to Skarinou and Ayios Theodoros towards evening. There, villagers were moved to central locations for their own safety.
“Priority was given to the safety of the public,” Trangolas said. “Some (residents) obeyed, some didn’t.” He also said in some cases people using tractors and excavators to help put out the fires had put themselves at risk. He urged people who wanted to help to ask for instructions before trying to tackle the flames.
As soon as the Choirokitia fire no longer posed a danger, the Nicosia- Limassol highway, which had been shut for around six hours due to thick smoke and flames licking the barriers, was reopened.
But all day, firefighters were being hindered by strong unpredictable winds and the rugged terrain. Inaccessible areas were targeted by water-dropping aircraft but the air support was stopped as soon as visibility dropped and darkness fell, Kemidji said.
Residents from the affected villages, and nearby Maroni assisted firefighters in a bid to save their properties. A family who could not leave their home because one of its members was ill, had to be evacuated by the fire services.
Television footage on Wednesday night showed residents in despair while the fires were still raging. Some broke down in tears. Harris Theodorou, a petrol station owner in Ayios Theodoros told journalists he was doing all he could to prevent the fire from engulfing his business and causing an explosion. “I have plenty of water and we are prepared,” he said. “No-one is here to help!” Ayios Theodoros resident, Georgia Christophorou told the state broadcaster, adding: “Everything is going to go up in flames”.
Larnaca police said three residents had passed out from the fuss but ambulance services were on hand in the affected villages.
One hundred firefighters, members of the civil defence and National Guard as well as 30 vehicles from Limassol and Larnaca fire stations and forestry department and civil defence were used in the operation.
Two helicopters from the fire service, a small airplane from the forestry department, a police helicopter and two British Bases helicopters were also used. Members of Larnaca’s local authorities were also there to lend a hand.
Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou, Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos and Transport Minister Tasos Mitsopoulos all travelled went to the area earlier in the day.
“The fire service’s job has been made even harder by the fact the fire started in four places at the same time,” Hasikos said.
On Wednesday night Turkish Cypriot side signalled its readiness to assist in a message passed on through the UN.