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The fire-fighter volunteers

Volunteers in the Solea area this week (Photo by REACTION)

Trained though he is in fire-fighting, Andreas from Nicosia was overwhelmed when he saw the walls of flames in the Solea area earlier this week.

“It was like a huge fire wave descending, burning everything. It even seemed to evade the red fire-retardant substance dropped by a helicopter, and carried on. It was as if my lungs were on fire,” Andreas told the Sunday Mail.

He was among the first volunteers to present for duty on Monday to assist firemen in their five-day fight to extinguish fires which destroyed at least 15 square kilometres of pine forest.

“I wanted to cry,” he said.

Andreas, who did not want his last name used, was one of the almost 4,000 volunteers who answered the call to help firefighters and proved crucial in helping fight the fire that started after noon on Sunday in the Evrychou region and was only brought under control on Thursday.

Some firemen had arrived straight from Argaka in the Paphos district where they had been fighting a fire which started on Saturday and was only extinguished a few hours before the Solea fire erupted.

“They told us they were battling with the fire for 36 hours with no sleep, and they did not let them stop for a while to rest,” Andreas said.

Andreas, Angela, Cleo resting at the Galata coordination centre between missions
Andreas, Angela, Cleo resting at the Galata coordination centre between missions

“They are heroes those out there. Some left Argaka and came straight here,” said Panayiotis Pattichis, a volunteer of an AKEL-organised group.

All the Republic’s forces were called in – crews of the forestry department, the fire service, the army, the civil defence, and firefighting aircraft. They were joined by aircraft despatched from the British bases, Israel, Greece and later France, and Italy. In total, 66 ground vehicles, 20 aircraft, and more than 400 personnel were battling with the flames.

But with high temperatures and winds fanning the flames, the volunteers provided invaluable help.

The volunteers, who had arrived from all over the island, including holidaymakers from abroad, were hosted by hotels, restaurants and home-owners in Kakopetria and Spilia.

The non-governmental organisation REACTION was coordinating volunteers at the operations centre in Galata. REACTION volunteer Anna Tsifte Kazakaiou said that many volunteers, experienced in firefighting or not, would appear for duty on a daily basis, by themselves, or in organised groups.

Many groups were made up of fans of different football clubs, and supporters of political parties, but they all worked together well she said.

“No one departs here alone, they are always escorted by firemen. Inexperienced volunteers are also utilised, they follow instructions,” Kazakaiou said.

She added that many volunteers were “unfortunately disappointed” because while aircraft were flying over the burning area they could not be there.

Inexperienced volunteers are usually put together with more experienced volunteers in firefighting.

“Everyone has been utilised for every job. We had women who were sent to the fire front,” she said.

One of those women was mother-of-two Angela Nonda from Nicosia who travelled up to the stricken area daily.

“I’m not working but I have to leave my two children, which is harder,” Nonda said. She said that while she was busy putting out fires, her children, aged four and 11, were with her husband who took them with him to work.

She said that she was sent to the fire fronts at Ayios Theodoros, Spilia and Kourdali.

“With shovels, we throw everything we can find into the fire to put it out, dirt, stones, anything,” she said. “We try to break the flaming trees’ trunk otherwise we will not be able to put the fire out.”

But even when they succeeded, she said, it did not mean the tree was fire-free as its roots might be burning and it could re-ignite.

And flaming tree roots are not the only threat.

“It’s also pinecones, and birds that catch fire while up in the air and drop dead on the ground, setting fire around them,” Andreas said.

Volunteers in action (Photo by REACTION)
Volunteers in action (Photo by REACTION)

And even when they thought they had succeeded in taming the flames, Pattichis said, on one occasion, the flames got through to the other side of the trench they had dug.

“It is no laughing matter, if we did not notice it, it could easily progress and burn the other side of the mountain, just like that,” he said.

Forest animals were also the victims of the five-day inferno.

While battling with the flames, Nonda said she noticed dead hares and hedgehogs all burned, by the side of the road, probably as they tried to run out of the forest to escape.

“Nothing is left alive up there,” Nonda said. She added that flocks of birds that were not caught up in the flames, were flying away toward Nicosia.

Among those volunteering were dozens of members of an AKEL-PEO group, that arrived from Nicosia.

“On the first day we were 30, yesterday we were 60, today we are 40,” Charalambos Iraklides, district secretary of PEO for Nicosia and Kyrenia said on Thursday.

He added that on Thursday, as the fire was finally brought under control, they were patrolling the area for re-ignitions, and assisted forestry department officials to put out any fires.

“The previous days we were assisting the fire service and the forestry department, we were pulling hoses, and we were digging safety zones, with shovels,” Iraklides said.

He added that some of them were experienced in firefighting, others not.

“The good thing is that they are all disciplined,” he said.

Another member of the group, Christos Panayiotou, praised the forestry department crew for their hard work, but also said that “there was somewhat lack of coordination from the centre,” which at times was leading the men at the fire front to take things in their own hands.

“The men would see fire somewhere and they would rush voluntarily to take measures. Those people they truly gave more than 100 per cent of themselves,” Panayiotou said.

He added that when they showed up for duty, the professional crews showed their relief that help had arrived.

At the coordination centre were nurse volunteers, some 50 of them working in shifts and members of the trauma branch of the Nurses and Midwives Association (CyNMA).

The head of the branch, Anna Farmaka, said that only on Wednesday, they prepared 861 volunteers to go to the fire front.

“We give them wet towels to protect their necks, masks for the smoke and fumes, and we explain to them what symptoms they should be aware of. We tell them that if they feel dizzy, they must stay clear of the flames,” Farmaka said.

She added that the usual injuries they have come across and treated were trauma, ankle and knee sprains due to the uneven terrain, eye irritations due to the smoke and first degree burns.

The volunteers were touched by the support they received from the people who rushed to bring water and sandwiches to them.

Volunteers who were far from home were hosted by hotels and private individuals in their homes in Kakopetria and Spilia.

“You have no idea how much help arrived, we had to ask them to stop bringing items, because we have so many now. We have tons of bottled water. I joked with the firemen that they can fill their pumps with it,” Andreas said.

“What gives you strength is to watch children carrying bags, bigger in size than them, with food and water,” Kazakaiou said.

But they are all moved by the notes and drawings of children that arrived wrapped around sandwiches.

She added that many sandwiches were wrapped with drawings, notes, or a wish. “It reminded me of the time of the war,” Kazakaiou said.

Children's picture made for the voluteers reads, 'When trees burn down, we have no life'
Children’s picture made for the voluteers reads, ‘When trees burn down, we have no life’

One such drawing, by a boy called Andreas with the note “When trees burn down, we have no life,” is glued to a mobile fridge used to store water and food items. The rest have been saved by volunteers.

For Cleo Toumba, another volunteer who arrived on Tuesday from Limassol, the most touching moments were when an elderly lady brought in a dozen boiled eggs, and another woman, who brought in along with other items a small bag with just three cookies.

“It was so moving.”

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