ARAKAPAS: A huge forest blaze in Cyprus killed four people, destroyed homes and forced evacuations of villages, police said on Sunday, as Greece, Israel and other countries deployed fire-fighting planes to the Mediterranean island.
The Egyptian government said the four dead were agricultural workers from the North African country, while Nicosia vowed in a tweet to “stand by the victims’ families in the face of this tragedy, offering every support”.
Fanned by strong winds, the fire broke out Saturday afternoon and swept through the southern foothills of the Troodos mountains as the country grapples with a blistering heatwave.
“Everything was a nightmare and pure hell here, the village was surrounded by fire,” said Akis Giorgiou, 45, from the hamlet of Arakapas, who had spent a terrifying night there and was relieved on Sunday that his home was spared from the flames.
At least 25 buildings were damaged or destroyed, nine of them in Arakapas, said a local police official.
“It is a tragedy,” President Nicos Anastasiades said about the blaze on Twitter, describing it as “the largest fire since 1974”, the year when the island was divided after Turkey occupied its northern third.
The blaze had caused loss of life and destroyed property and forest lands, Anastasiades said, adding that “the government will provide immediate assistance” to the victims and their families.
More than 50 square kilometres (20 square miles) of forest and farmland had been destroyed.
Thick gnarled trunks of ancient olive trees, emblematic of the holiday island, were reduced to smouldering stumps.
Firefighters brought the main fire under control on Sunday, authorities said, while warning that strengthening winds could yet propel a resurgence.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said the four Egyptians’ charred bodies were found outside the village of Odos in Larnaca district.
Their burnt-out vehicle was found at the bottom of a ravine and the four bodies some 600 metres (yards) away. A policeman at the scene said that they appeared to have fled the vehicle on foot but run in the direction of the wind-fanned flames, in a doomed attempt to escape.
In areas where the fire had been tamed, charred tree trunks were visible on hillsides, while grey ash had replaced yellowed scrub as far as the eye could see in non-forested areas.
A 67-year-old farmer was arrested and remanded in custody on suspicion of starting the blaze. He was seen by an eyewitness leaving the village of Arakapas in his car at the same time the fire started there on Saturday, police said.
He could face charges of recklessly causing the deaths of the four Egyptians, police added.
Anastasiades visited a crisis management centre in the village of Vavatsinia, located a few kilometres east of the blaze, on Sunday morning, before heading to areas ravaged by the flames, according to the CNA news agency. He said the blaze appeared largely contained but could resurge.
“The high temperatures and the wind are our biggest dangers,” he said.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2021