The government is to buy ten private aircraft with the aim of expanding its firefighting capacity, Agriculture Minister Maria Panayiotou said on Saturday.

Speaking to the Cyprus News Agency (CNA), she said the government’s hand had been forced by the “new reality” regarding wildfires caused by climate change.

“Now, we are talking about more frequent fires which are more difficult to extinguish. This means the way we dealt with them before must change,” she said.

She said that for this reason, the forestry department has “proceeded in a timely manner to strengthen its ground forces”, increasing its fleet of vehicles with a €5.5 million investment. This, she said, has improved standby time.

“From this year, the forestry department … is operationally ready from April and not from May. It has reinforced its ground forces with fire engines and other vehicles and is at operational readiness a month earlier than other years,” she said.

“At the same time, there is also the question of acquiring the means of aviation. We see this as a mater of national security, and that is why the recent decision to transfer the aviation equipment unit to the National Guard was taken,” she added.

She said that even with this restructuring, “it has become apparent that our aviation infrastructure is insufficient, and that is why we are proceeding with the purchase” of the ten privately owned aircraft.

Meanwhile, she said, issues of understaffing at the forestry department are also being resolved, with the forthcoming reopening of the forestry college set to provide a stable supply of entrants into the workforce.

Asked if she was worried about the recent increase in the number of fires, she said she was more worried about people intentionally setting fires.

“Deliberately causing a fire and burning forest land is tantamount to taking a human life,” she said.

“This is inadmissible, and it is something which certainly worries us, and that is why the further tightening of legislation is underway, as well as the taking of a series of other measures which will act as a deterrent.

“We must all understand that we must avoid any actions which may cause fires. We know that more than 90 per cent of fires are caused by human action,” she said.

She added that all the factors which contribute to reducing and extinguishing fires are important, but that “the most important is the human factor”.

“They are the forest officials, the forest firefighters, the professional firefighters, the firefighting volunteers, the civil defence, the game fund, all of them who fight the flames every single summer. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude,” she said.