JUST days after the anniversary of North Cyprus's worst ever forest fire, and the country was ablaze again.
Last Thursday marked 22 years since the June 29, 1995 outbreak of the devastating inferno which destroyed more than 62,000 dönüms of forest land in just three days – a figure exceeded only over a period of 16 years, with some 67,500 dönüms of loss to fire recorded between 2000 and 2016.
A mere 24 hours after the landmark date, there was panic for a few hours as fire believed to have been started by a cigarette butt consumed 10 dönüms of land in lower Karaman and upper Edremit – and relief as it was quickly put out by firefighters before it could spread to perilously nearby homes.
A day later, it was the turn of the Alevkayası area, where some 30 dönüms of forest went up in flames, sparking a series of explosions among discarded ammunition in an area used by the military for manoeuvres.
There was alarm in the village of Kalavaç as the flames approached, with scared residents fearing they would have to evacuate, but firemen helped by Forestry Department and Civil Defence crews and members of the public succeeded in putting them out without damage to homes or any injury.
Then came Sunday . . . and a forest inferno now set to go down as the country's third-worst, behind 1995 and the 2013 blaze at Yeşilırmak which decimated a quarter of a million trees.
Forestry Department head Altay Fırat said the fire, which started shortly after midday at the Kalkanlı picnic area – possibly as a result of trees touching overhead power lines – had lain waste to some 2,205 dönüms as it swept north towards Koruçam.
Firemen from around the country were mobilised to bring the blaze under control, while firefighting helicopters and aircraft from Turkey and the British Sovereign Base Areas were brought in to douse the fire-hit area with water.
However the time taken for aerial help to arrive, while an anxious President Mustafa Akıncı was kept abreast of developments while attending peace talks in Switzerland, rekindled demands from environmentalists and trades unions for the TRNC to have its own firefighting helicopter.
Cyprus Today last month reported condemnation of government failure to rent such a craft for the season as “leaving the door open to catastrophe” -- while Tourism and Environment Minister Fikri Ataoğlu dismissed it as “as waste of money”.
Summer 2015 saw the TRNC rent a fire chopper between July and October at a cost of $937,400 for a total 181 hours and 40 minutes' service, intervening in 14 incidents.
But Mr Ataoğlu told Cyprus Today: “Leasing out a helicopter for firefighting purposes costs millions of euros and we see this as a waste of money because we have an existing protocol with . . . Turkey. This provides for helicopter cover, in some cases helicopters from Turkey can reach areas such as the Karpaz more quickly than a helicopter stationed in Lefkoşa.”
Mr Fırat, who had backed Mr Ataoğlu's stance – saying there were 30 helicopters on stand-by in southern Turkey and could be in North Cyprus in 15 minutes in the event of a call-out – stressed this week that he was not against the principle of having a firefighting helicopter in the TRNC.
“But there is a budget issue – it costs between $2,500 and $3,000 per day to run it,” he said.
“Having a chopper is of course needed, but we didn't use it when we leased it out before, and we encountered widespread criticism that we had wasted money.”
The arguments cut little ice with Green Action Group head Doğan Sahir, however. He said he had been “horrified” to see fires break out one after another on days with temperatures peaking at 45°C in parts of the country.
Mr Sahir challenged the authorities: “Is it not an undeniable fact that there will be fires during peak fire season?
“Our forests are reaching the point of extinction because of insensitivity, exploitation and negligence, and either those responsible for these matters are incapable, senseless and incompetent or they do not feel love for their country.
“They should resign immediately to make way for those who do.
“Are they waiting for the last tree in North Cyprus to be burnt down before taking action?”
Public Workers' Trade Union (Ktams) head Ahmet Kaptan, a civil aviation worker by profession, reiterated his denial of claims that a helicopter from Turkey could reach North Cyprus in 15 to 20 minutes.
“It takes a minimum of 40 minutes for choppers from Turkey to get here, and in this instance, it took them four hours to get here to fight the blaze at Kalkanlı last weekend.
“I wish I was wrong, but we've lived through a real catastrophe, and it's a great shame that no lessons are still being learned.
“You rightly reported that the door to catastrophe had been opened, and unfortunately, it has happened. We are in deep sadness.
“If we were in a democratic country, there would be legal action or at least an investigation launched questioning why there was no helicopter stationed here, and why measures had not been taken.”
Mr Kaptan added: “How come they have money to fund the acquisition of luxury Mercedes cars and fund trips abroad?
“We have also heard that the Forestry Department doesn't have enough staff to operate its firefighting equipment. Is this true?
“[Agriculture and Natural Resources] Minister Nazım Çavuşoğlu has a responsibility to make a statement on these fires. Why is he remaining silent?”
Cyprus Today was unable to reach Mr Çavuşoğlu for comment.
Forestry Department engineer Ercan Poyraz said checks were being stepped up to guard against new outbreaks in the sweltering heat and underlined that lighting fires and barbecuing was “strictly forbidden” anywhere other than in designated picnic areas.
Asked whether the latest incidents might fuel a blanket ban on barbecues in the countryside, he admitted this could happen “if necessary”.
Mr Poyraz confirmed that air support from Turkey had “arrived late . . . because there was a fire in Turkey at the same time”.
“That is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence and we were unlucky there,” he said, adding: “Personally speaking, I believe we need to have a firefighting helicopter stationed in North Cyprus.”
Government has been negligent – protesters
DEMANDS for the TRNC to host its own firefighting helicopter were voiced at a protest staged outside the Prime Ministry on Tuesday by the World Does Not Belong To Us Alone Movement, made up of six civil groups.
Activist Hatice Azizoğlu read out a statement, saying: “Thousands of birds, animals, snakes, wildlife, trees and flowers . . . have been destroyed in the big Kalkanlı area fire . . . This is because we did not have a firefighting helicopter on stand-by in North Cyprus.”
The demo was backed by Social Democratic Party (TDP) general secretary Asım İdris, who said “the fire not only burnt down the forest, but our future”.
“The government is . . . negligent in not stationing a helicopter here or taking any effective measures.”
“Our bodies and sould are burning”
PEOPLE'S Party chairman Kudret Özersay said on a social media: “In the last few days, not only our bodies have been burning, but our souls too.
“The very few trees in the country are being sacrificed to fire.
“Let us act like responsible human beings . . . to know where to put cigarette butts when on the road, or in picnic areas.”
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