Scandal of the “stolen” fire cameras
A special fire safety camera system installed to give early warning of blazes such as last Sunday’s massive forest fire has been abandoned through lack of maintenance and most of its high-tech equipment has been “stolen,” the head of the Forestry Department revealed exclusively to Cyprus Today this week.
The EU’s Natura 2000 project paid 950,000 euros to install the fire detection system in 2010. It consisted of 15 cameras mounted on observation posts on mountains and coastal areas, monitored from a centre in Lefkoşa. It was said to be able to detect fires or any sign of smoke, within 15 seconds.
Forestry Department head, Cemil Karzaoğlu was in charge at the time and re-took office in July last year. He told Cyprus Today: “The highly sensitive fire and smoke digital system was set up in 2010, under the EU programme, and was supposed to allow us to spot even the slightest visual of smoke. Then the contract with the EU to run the system expired three years later. Our state didn’t give us the staff needed to train new technicians and engineers to run the complex system. In the end, the system became obsolete as parts of it started to break down.”
Asked where the cameras were now, he said: “The cameras, batteries and solar panels. . .all have been stolen.”
Mr Karzaoğlu, referring to the catastrophic Tepebaşı-Kalkanlı forest fire last Sunday, admitted that had the camera system been working “we would have been able to respond more quickly”, but says even then “the cause of the catastrophe is not the absence of the camera system, but the high winds and heat on the day which caused the blazes to spread rapidly”.
Former Forestry Department head, Altay Fırat confirmed: “The high pixel camera system was connected to a central headquarter room. There were no technicians or engineers trained to fix it so it just stopped working and was left like that.”
Today the camera system has been replaced by 12 guards on duty across the mountain range keeping watch and calling in if they spot anything.
Last Sunday’s fire tore through five hectares of forest land from Tepebaşı to Kalkanlı and separately in Koruçam in the north west of the country – gutting an estimated 11,500 dönüms – an area equivalent to nearly eight times the size of London’s Hyde Park.
It wiped out 90 per cent of the area’s Monumental Olive Trees, giant and ancient specimens
supposed to be under special protection. It was the worst outbreak since 1995 when a massive fire tore through almost the entire northern slopes of the Five Finger mountains - destroying 8,000 hectares - or 18 per cent of the forests of the country.
Environmentalists expressed anger at the ‘negligence’ by the authorities that could have increased the chances of preventing the fire.
Green Action Group head Doğan Sahir blasted the Forestry department and past and present governments, telling this newspaper: “The camera system was very important. For the system not to be working 10 years after it was set up is an absolute disgrace, negligent, irresponsible and shows that there is no care for our forests and environment.
“The past and present forestry official and governments are responsible for this catastrophe. How can the TRNC not train technicians for a camera system that was able to see 360 degrees in every direction and super sensitive to fires in our forests?
“Every second, every minute counts when a forest fire starts. The centralised camera system was a very important defence mechanism against fires. People can finish three university degrees in 10 years. How can they not have trained anyone to run the system during this period?
“And because of sheer irresponsibility and negligence, the system has now vanished. This is nothing short of incompetence. The reason air power came hours later from Turkey, is because the forestry department did not make a call for help. We know this. Turkish forestry officials saw the smoke from Turkey, and they offered to help. They weren’t even approached by the TRNC,” he said.
Asked as to why there were more than 70 fires across the TRNC in the space of a week, Mr Sahir said: “A combination of reasons. There could be an element of sabotage and climate change. However there has been a huge amount of cigarette butts, rubbish, litter and glass bottles etc left on roadsides and in forests. These are now highly susceptible to being inflammable from peaking weather temperatures which has already reached as much as 47 degrees C in some parts of North Cyprus,” he said. “They took no action despite our warnings to implement laws to discourage people from littering, or carry out clean ups of the pollution.”
Biologists Association head Hasan Sarpten, said what happened last Sunday “cannot be described as a natural disaster.”
“This has happened because of ignoring nature, and not taking any measures to protect it,” he said. “Thousands of vegetation and wildlife animals have burnt to death. But even then, officials are pleased that there has been ‘no loss of life’. Indeed, they have a political understanding which ignores nature.”
Mr Sarpten added: “Monumental Olive trees – or the oldest living things of Cyprus – dating back 1,000 years – have been lost. There is nothing that can be done to recover them. But the ministers are still talking about ‘wounds being healed’ which is nonsensical. The governments have failed to protect the monumental trees since 2006 even though a law was enacted for this. They think that by planting saplings they will replace the monumental trees. . .which is unbelievable,” he said.
Referring to the comments of the Tourism and Environmental Minister Ünal Üstel who expressed his “sorrow” at what has happened, Mr Sarpten said: “He can only say he is sorry, and not wanting to take any responsibility. Those who are in office who have neglected are as guilty as those who are guilty of sabotage,” he said. “They are acting as though climate change is not affecting our country and are adding catastrophe to catastrophe,” he said.
Mr Sarpten called on the Tourism and Environmental Minister (Mr Üstel) to accept responsibility and resign.