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As flames subside, criticism creeps in: understaffing claims denied  

CNA

As the Solea fires subsided on Wednesday, there emerged the first stirrings of criticism at government agencies’ apparent failure to properly coordinate in combating the inferno.

Main opposition AKEL, the Greens and the Citizens Alliance released statements saying they believed that, other than possible criminal responsibility for the outbreak of the fires, political responsibilities in the response should also be addressed.

Earlier in the day, and while the situation was still touch-and-go, AKEL MP Aristos Damianou said efforts to extinguish the flames took priority.

“However there are responsibilities and these should be sought when the time is right,” the statement added.

Likewise the Greens said “It goes without saying that there a great many aspects which need to be looked into. All this will take place once the last fire is out.”

The Citizens Alliance were slightly more specific, citing the apparent lack of coordination among the various state agencies tasked with battling the fires.

Party leader Giorgos Lillikas spoke of ‘disarray’ among the relevant government ministries.

Relating a personal experience, Lillikas said that while visiting the coordination centre for the fires on Tuesday government representatives had assured him that they did not need volunteers.

Members of the public were meantime getting in touch with the party asking how to register as volunteers to aid in fire-fighting efforts.

“When I told them [government officials] this, their answer was that we cannot coordinate and we do not need any new volunteers,” said Lillikas.

“I was therefore surprised today [Wednesday] to hear the Department of Forests calling on citizens to enlist as volunteers.”

Unfortunately, Lillikas added, the lack of organization may have led to the loss of life and the enormous damage to the environment.

Meantime an announcement released by the Department of Forests back on March 21, the International Day of Forests, appears – in hindsight – to have been prophetic.

The department was warning of serious understaffing, budget cutbacks, and ageing equipment that was not being replaced.

It said that 67 positions had been left vacant, while 27 positions had been abolished over the past four years.

This meant fewer staff had to cope with more duties as well as an expanded area of responsibility. In 2012, the department said, its area of responsibility was increased from 35 per cent of the government-controlled areas, to 54 per cent.

It also criticised the government for refusing to register the department’s two fire-fighting aircraft due to flight safety reasons.

But head of the Department of Forests Takis Tsintidis refuted claims of understaffing. He told Sigma channel that in fact the number of fire-fighters had increased by 15 over the last two years.

“Funds for standby patrols and overtime have not been touched, nor have funds allocated to fire protection been slashed. In Canada some 160,000 square kilometres were burned. Did they have shortages there? No, it was just a set of bad coincidences.”

As an interesting side-note, on Wednesday the media were notified that henceforth updates on the fire situation should be sought only from the two responsible ministers – of justice and the interior – and that officials from the concerned departments would no longer be available for comment.

The coordinating committee of Akamas communities and land owners meanwhile called on government agencies to immediately activate the forest fires detection system, “which supposedly is operational for the whole Akamas forest.”

The committee urged the government to man all fire observatories.

Amid the acrimony, offers of help and expressions of sympathy kept pouring in from the general public and organised groups.

The mayor and the municipal councillors of Dali said they would offering their June salary to help the people affected by the fires.

The municipality additionally began organising donations to assist those affected and for reforestation purposes.

Larnaca municipality said that the flags at its central offices would be flown at half mast for three days, starting Wednesday, in honour of the two firemen who lost their lives.

 

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