Cyprus authorities have said that a deadly forest fire, which was the worst to hit the island in decades, came close to being brought under control after the bombardment of water by Greek and Israeli planes.
Stoked by strong winds, the blaze broke out Saturday afternoon and swept through the southern foothills of the Troodos Range as the country faced a scorching heat wave.
The fire killed four Egyptian workers, destroyed 50 houses, damaged farms and power lines, and forced the evacuation of 10 villages.
“It was all a nightmare and pure hell here; the village was surrounded by fire, ”said Akis Giorgiou, 45, from Arakapas village.
Late Sunday afternoon, the government reported a “reduction in [fire] outbreaks ”thanks to“ drops of water effective by Greek and Israeli planes ”.
The Egyptian government said the four dead were agricultural workers from the North African country, while Nicosia pledged to “support the families of the victims … offering all its support.”
“It’s a tragedy,” President Nicos Anastasiades said on Twitter, describing it as “the biggest fire since 1974,” the year the island split after Turkey occupied its northern third.
More than 50 square kilometers (20 square miles) of forests and farmland had been destroyed. Thick, gnarled trunks of centuries-old olive trees, emblematic of the holiday island, were reduced to smoking stumps.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris said the charred bodies of the four Egyptians were found outside the village of Odos in the Larnaca district.
His burned vehicle was found at the bottom of a ravine and the four bodies 600 meters away. A police officer at the scene said they appeared to have fled the vehicle on foot, but ran in the direction of the flames fanned by the wind, in a failed attempt to escape.
In areas where fire had been tamed, gray ash replaced yellowish bushes as far as the eye could see in non-wooded areas.
A 67-year-old farmer was arrested and taken into custody on suspicion of causing the fire, which he denied. Police said a witness had seen him leave Arakapas village in his car at the same time the fire started there, and could face charges of recklessly causing the four deaths.
Anastasiades visited a crisis management center in the town of Vavatsinia, a few miles east of the fire, on Sunday morning, the CNA news agency reported. The Greek Cypriot leader said the blaze appeared to be largely contained, but could resurface.
Firefighters were seen along the road leading to Vavatsinia and several helicopters flew over the fire as thick gray smoke obscured the sky. An AFP correspondent in the village of Ora reported seeing several houses set on fire.
Janez Lenarčič, the European commissioner for crisis management, said on Saturday that the EU’s “aerial firefighting capacity” had been mobilized, with Italy and Greece sending planes to help.
Israel deployed a C-130 Hercules and two “air tractor” firefighting aircraft. – Great Britain, which has military bases in Cyprus, deployed two search and rescue helicopters.
A government spokeswoman later said the situation was about to be brought under control.
“The fire and forestry services inspected the affected communities and now consider them safe,” said spokeswoman Niovi Parisinou.
“The effort continues as compliance is not allowed until the final extinction of all fires,” he said, adding that electricity supplies were gradually being restored.
“Instructions have already been given for people to return to places where homes are considered safe.”
The teams would immediately be deployed to begin assessing and searching damaged homes and properties for compensation, he added.
Cyprus has experienced prolonged heat waves and dry spells in recent years.
In recent days, the temperature has exceeded 40 ° C (104 ° F) inland and there has been very little rain since mid-April.