NICOSIA (Reuters) - Two firefighters were killed tackling one of the largest forest fires to hit Cyprus in years, and several countries mobilized aid on Tuesday as the flames raged for a third day.
The fire, which police said may have spread from a garden where stubble was being burned, broke out on Sunday in the foothills of the eastern Mediterranean island’s Troodos mountains.
It has been fanned by high winds and scorching temperatures, hampering efforts by firefighters backed by helicopters from British military bases on the island and water bomber aircraft from Greece and Israel.
French and Italian air support arrived late Tuesday and were expected to be mobilized from Wednesday.
The two firefighters were killed when a water tanker overturned. A third was in a critical condition after a fire truck plunged down a ravine.
They were the first fatalities among firefighters reported in at least a decade in Cyprus, which has frequent brush fires during the hot summer months but usually on a much smaller scale.
Turkey, which the Greek Cypriot government has been at loggerheads with for decades, also offered aid through Mustafa Akinci, leader of the Turkish Cypriot community on the divided island.
In a statement, Cyprus said it accepted Turkey’s offer provided it was integrated in the broader aid effort being coordinated by the state.
Ankara does not recognize the Greek Cypriot government, which represents Cyprus in the EU, a bloc Turkey wants to join.
A Reuters witness said lush pine forest was reduced to blackened stumps as aircraft dumped red dry extinguishing powder on to the flames, followed by helicopters equipped with ‘rainmaker’ buckets.
The Soleas area hardest hit by the blaze is covered with pine forest and fruit orchards. The blaze coincided with a heatwave which pushed temperatures up to 42 degrees centigrade (108 Fahrenheit), creating tinderbox conditions.
The broader area contains 10 well conserved painted churches dating from the Byzantine era which are on the UNECSO World Heritage list. “They are not in danger, we are protecting them,” fire brigade spokesman Leonidas Leonidou told Reuters.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades asked for a meeting scheduled with Turkish Cypriot leader Akinci, part of a series of talks focused on reunification of the island, to be postponed.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines following a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.
Writing by Michele Kambas, editing by Dominic Evans and John Stonestreet