Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou on Thursday deflected a direct question relating to some criticism as to the number of firefighting aircraft the Republic has at its disposal on its own.
In all 20 aircraft from Cyprus, Israel, UK, Greece, France and Italy took part at various stages during the five days it took to bring the Solea fires under control on Thursday.
Speaking to reporters, Nicolaou was asked whether the aircraft capabilities of local services might not be enough should another such fire occur, the minister said that from the first moment of the fire, eight aircraft were at the disposal of the Republic.
Four of them however were Israeli as Tel Aviv had sent aircraft early Sunday to help bring under control a fire that had broken out on Saturday night in Argaka in Paphos that had raged overnight.
Cyprus itself has two firefighting planes belonging to the forestry department, two leased helicopters and two police firefighting choppers. The British bases also contribute two helicopters to large firefighting efforts on the island, which brings total instant access to eight.
Nicolaou said that from the minute the Solea fire, which began in nearby Evrychou, got out of control, eight aircraft were immediately deployed, the two planes and the two leased helicopters, along with the Israeli help.
“From the first moment we had eight aircraft operating and within half an hour they became 12,” he said, as four more helicopters joined – the two from police and two from the British bases.
Answering criticism as to the small number of aircraft actually owned by the Republic, Nicolaou did not answer directly, merely saying this was the first time “we had in our disposal so many aircraft from the very beginning”.
“We had eight from the first moment, two aircraft from the forestry department, two leased helicopters, and four aircraft from Israel that were already in Cyprus,” he said.
“Within half an hour we had 12 aircraft operating, plus one from the national guard which was coordinating,” Nicolaou added. “This the first time the RoC had such an increased number of aircraft at its disposal”.
In 2015, he said, the government had decided instead of selling the two Bell helicopters used by the police, to refit them for firefighting purposes.
On Thursday, the fifth day of operations, the fire was brought under control, and the majority of aircraft, remained in Paphos but on standby, while only one helicopter was being utilised to patrol the area and tackle re-ignitions. Three helicopters remain on stand-by in Kakopetria, Nicolaou said.
“Just think the level of coordination needed for effective water drops with safety,” he said.
He added that the aircraft had to coordinate between them when to enter the area, where to exit from, what time, and at what height, to avoid any problems.
“This is phenomenal, as is also the fact that we had 250 flights from Paphos within minimum time,” Nicolaou said. “Each and every one of us should therefore assess the level of responsibility needed and the seriousness of the people handling this,” he said. “They gave a battle and brought results […], along with the volunteers whom I would like to thank,” he said.
Nicolaou, who has been monitoring operations since day one from the coordination centre set up in Galata, said the government would decide later in the day whether the aircraft that arrived from abroad were to remain on the island longer or would leave for their own countries.