Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis on Sunday responded to criticism from public service unions over a hiring freeze the wake of the devastating fire in the Solea region that burned for five days and resulted in the death of two forestry firefighters, and destroyed around 15 square kilometres of forest.
Kouyialis said though there had been a hiring freeze since 2011 in the broader public service, the forestry department was less affected than others.
Specifically, he said, the cabinet had in August 2013, decided to hire all of graduates of Forestry College for the years 2013 to 2015, numbering 23 people, despite the freeze.
Also, he added, the current government had reversed a decision made in 2012 by the Christofias administration for the termination seasonal hourly-paid firefighters.
“Today, the forestry department has 400 seasonal hourly-paid firefighters and 330 general seasonal hourly-paid staff,” he said.
“Moreover, a decision of the present government, the employment of hourly-paid firefighters since 2015 has expanded from six to eight months a year.”
Kouyialis said that on top of those, the department has 240 permanent staff compared with 249 in 2013, plus 46 contract civil servants compared with 35 in 2013, around 136 hourly-paid staff compared with 142 in 2013
The 46 temporary forest officers have the same duties and responsibilities as permanent staff, he added.
Regarding vehicles, Kouyialis said the forestry department secured in 2015 secured eight small fire engines, and in 2016 bought four large fire vehicles – two of which are due for delivery. He also said the 2017 budget includes 570,000 euros for the purchase of 10 small fire engines, and an advance for the purchase of six large vehicles.
The staffing of the flight units is ongoing, he said. “We have already recruited two pilots and are hiring two aircraft engineers. “In order to address current needs, the department hires services from the private sector of two pilots and two mechanics,” Kouyialis said.
The forestry department has two firefighting planes and two leased helicopters at its disposal plus two police helicopters that were re-fitted for firefighting.