THE government said on Thursday it would be launching a panel tasked with investigating the events surrounding the recent Solea fires.
The reveal was made by Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos during the first parliamentary discussion of the blaze which incinerated 18.5 square kilometres of forest land, in some cases threatening homes and prompting accusations that authorities were unprepared for a crisis on this scale. Two firefighters lost their lives during the five-day battle to bring the fire under control.
A commission of inquiry will be set up once all the involved agencies have filed their respective reports. The cabinet meantime has also decided to appoint experts to assess the current firefighting operational manuals and plans and to recommend improvements.
“It is neither Hasikos’ nor Kouyialis’ job to put out fires,” a defensive Hasikos was later quoted as saying, referring to himself and his colleague, the agriculture minister.
MPs summoned to parliament the ministers of the interior, agriculture, justice and finance to answer questions about their ministries’ respective roles.
In-session, Hasikos told MPs that responsibility, if any, for the fires raging out of control should be sought with officials operating on the ground, not the ministers.
He referred to a ministerial committee that met on May 6 and whose purpose it was to plan ahead for the summer season.
The meeting recorded the firefighters as well as the means – airborne and ground – available and assessed their level of preparedness.
“Therefore, the government discharged its duty which was to ensure we had enough means at our disposal,” said Hasikos.
And as soon as firefighting officials asked for assistance, the government acted immediately to request aircraft from Israel, Greece and France.
“We did whatever we possibly could. For the first time, we had 20 aircraft at our disposal,” the minister argued.
“From there on, it is a question of how the fire was managed by the operating officials, the weather conditions we had to deal with, and I think we coped with the least possible damage,” he added.
Hasikos said also this was by no means the worst fire, citing the Pano Pyrgos blaze of 1998 which burned through 40 square kilometres. The worst blaze on record, which broke out in the Vavla area in 2000, had burned 52 square kilometres.
Later in the day, Hasikos released a statement claiming he was previously misquoted by media. He never suggested that any blame should be sought with firefighting officials, whom he went on to thank for their valiant efforts.
MPs heard that the number of part-time forestry department officers was not reduced. There were 288 officers this year, compared to 290 last year, and 292 in 2014.
Finance Minister Harris Georgiades denied allegations that the current administration had slashed overtime pay for forestry department staff.
Neither was the department’s budget cut, he said.
For his part, Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou insisted that equipment was up-to-date. Firefighting vehicles have been fitted with GPS tracking devices, and for the first time this year a satellite-imaging system was used.
Likewise, Agriculture Minister Nicos Kouyialis said forestry department personnel were never more numerous than at present, adding that there were 17 vacant positions which would soon be filled by forest academy graduates.
Kouyialis promised that a restoration and reforestation plan for Solea would be drawn up within a month, and would start being implemented as of October.
The government has decided to set aside some €200,000 for anti-erosion works.
But opposition lawmakers were unimpressed.
AKEL MP Eleni Mavrou, who chairs the House interior affairs committee, later told the media that for two hours the ministers cited a string of statistics without answering the key questions – such as when exactly assistance was sought from other countries, or what measures were taken in response to pleas from officials.
“It’s all being blamed on poor communication and on operations officials who did not provide timely briefings on the extent of the fire,” Mavrou commented with a hint of sarcasm.
Another parliamentary discussion is planned for next week, where representatives of communities affected by the fires will be giving their own account.