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Forestry department employees had warned of staff shortages

a firefighting plane drops water on a wildfire in the larnaca mountain region
File photo

A year before the recent catastrophic fire that burned nearly 55 square kilometres in the forest areas of Limassol and Larnaca and killed four people, employees at the forestry department wrote to President Nicos Anastasiades warning him about the risks, but received no response, according to news reports on Thursday.

Dated July 21, 2020, the letter was sent by staff members belonging to the public servants’ union Pasydy.  Reproduced in Phileleftheros, it mainly underlined the lack of staffing within the department and the serious consequences of wildfires.

It came as the department issued another appeal to the public to be particularly careful over the August 15 weekend, one of the busiest holidays in Cyprus.

“For five years we have repeatedly voiced our concerns about the serious lack of staffing within the department and we have done so because we have observed how urgent the situation can become when fires break out,” the letter said.

“Key aspects of prevention and early suppression of fires cannot be implemented at the moment, simply because crucial posts are left vacant. Should a big fire break out again, such as the one in Solea in June 2016, we will not be able to fight it.”

The letter also said that there were 69 vacant positions in the forestry department, coupled with 27 more posts that were previously scrapped, for a total of 96 key missing positions.

Also, it said, after a new forestry law adopted in 2012, the area of responsibility of the department for fire protection purposes rose from 35 to 54 per cent in Cyprus, but without any increase in staff.

“The existing staff of the forestry department is simply not sufficient to carry out, to the required extent, the most basic of its duties, the effective management and protection of our forest wealth, despite all the diligent efforts and zeal that our employees demonstrate, even at the cost of sacrificing their personal lives, since they work from 60 to 70 hours a week.

“We have repeatedly addressed the issue both with the agriculture and the finance ministries, but, unfortunately, despite assurances and promises, we have not received an adequate response,” the letter concluded.

Meanwhile, the forestry department issued another warning on Thursday warning about the risk of fires during the August 15 public holiday weekend.

“We appeal to the public to be particularly careful by avoiding actions and activities that may cause a fire, and by cooperating closely with the forestry department personnel,” the statement said.

“In particular, we are urging people to clean up after outdoor activities and not to burn items that may cause a fire.”

Lighting fires to cook food is only permitted in designated picnic or barbecue areas, the department added.

The fine for those who start a fire without a licence amounts to up to 10 years in prison or €50,000 or both sentences combined according to the forest law of 2012, and up to five years in jail or €20,000 according to the Prevention of Fires in the Rural Areas Act 1988.

Anyone who spots smoke or fire in or near the forest should contact 1407 (forestry department) or 112 (fire department).

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