Cyprus fire leaves four dead in country's worst forest blaze for decades

A 67-year-old farmer has been arrested and remanded in custody on suspicion of causing the blaze

The worst forest fire to hit Cyprus in decades is close to being brought under control, authorities said.

It broke out Saturday afternoon and, fanned by strong winds, swept through the southern foothills of the Troodos mountain range.

“Everything was a nightmare and pure hell here. The village was surrounded by fire,” said Akis Giorgiou, 45, from the hamlet of Arakapas.

By late Sunday afternoon, the government in Nicosia reported a “reduction of outbreaks” thanks to “effective water drops by Greek and Israeli aircraft”.

The blaze killed four Egyptian labourers, destroyed 50 homes, damaged farms and power lines, and forced the evacuation of 10 villages.

The Egyptian government said the four dead were farm workers. Nicosia vowed in a tweet to “stand by the victims’ families ... offering every support”.

“It is a tragedy,” President Nicos Anastasiades said on Twitter. He described the blaze as “the largest fire since 1974”, the year when the island was divided after Turkey occupied its northern third.

More than 50 square kilometres of forest and farmland had been destroyed.

Thick gnarled trunks of ancient olive trees, emblematic of the holiday island, were reduced to smouldering stumps.

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said the Egyptians were found outside the village of Odos in Larnaca.

Their burnt-out vehicle was found at the bottom of a ravine and the four bodies about 600 metres away.

A policeman at the scene told AFP they appeared to have fled the vehicle on foot but have run in the direction of the wind-fanned flames.

In areas where the fire had been tamed, grey ash 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 causing the blaze.

Police said a witness had seen him leaving the village of Arakapas in his car at the time the fire started there.

The farmer could face charges of recklessly causing the four deaths.

Mr Anastasiades visited a crisis management centre in the village of Vavatsinia, a few kilometres east of the blaze, on Sunday morning, the CNA news agency reported.

The Greek Cypriot leader said the blaze appeared to have largely been contained but could resurge.

Firefighters were seen along the road leading to Vavatsinia and several helicopters hovered above the fire as thick grey smoke obscured the sky.

An AFP correspondent in Ora village reported seeing several burnt-out homes.

Janez Lenarcic, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, said on Saturday that the EU’s “aerial firefighting capacity” had been mobilised, with Italy and Greece sending planes to help.

Israel deployed a C-130 Hercules and two “Air Tractor” firefighting planes.

Britain, which has military bases on Cyprus, sent two search and rescue helicopters.

A government spokeswoman said later that the situation was close to being brought under control.

“The fire and forestry services inspected the affected communities and now consider them safe,” spokeswoman Niovi Parisinou said.

“The effort continues as complacency is not allowed until the final extinguishing of all fires.”

Electricity supplies were being gradually restored, she said.

“Instructions have already been given for people to return where homes are deemed safe.”

Teams would be sent immediately to evaluate and register damaged homes and property for compensation, she said.

Cyprus has experienced extended heatwaves and periods of drought in recent years.

In the past few days, the temperature has topped 40°C inland and there has been very little rain since mid-April.

Updated: July 5th 2021, 7:44 AM