NICOSIA – A deadly brush fire that claimed four lives and has been described as the most destructive blaze in Cyprus' 61-year history as an independent republic is now fully under control, Cypriot authorities said Monday.
Cyprus’ Forestry Department said more than 600 people managed to contain the blaze early Monday after it scorched more than 55 square kilometers (21 square miles), forcing the evacuation of nine villages and burning down homes, businesses, orchards and forest.
Fire crews remain on the scene in case the blaze reignites amid temperatures reaching 35 C (95 F). Cyprus Electricity Authority officials said they hope to have power restored to at least seven villages by Monday evening.
Search crews on Sunday discovered the bodies of four people who are believed to be Egyptian laborers outside the village of Orou on the southern edge of Cyprus’ main Troodos mountain range.
The men, ages 22 to 29, had gone missing Saturday afternoon when the fire began outside the nearby village of Arakapas and spread quickly amid strong winds.
Officials said the four tried to flee the fire along a dirt mountain track, but their small truck veered off the road and fell down an embankment. They tried to flee on foot, but didn’t make it.
Trade Union PEO has asked for a full investigation into the laborers' deaths as well as their work safety conditions.
President Nicos Anastasiades called the fire “an unprecedented tragedy” for Cyprus except for the destruction wreaked by a 1974 war that split the island along ethnic lines after Turkey invaded in response to a coup aimed at union with Greece.
Some residents who lost their homes and property to the fire wept as they described seeing a lifetime’s worth of labor going up in flames. People were allowed back to their homes after their villages were declared safe.
Anastasiades, who toured the fire-hit villages on Sunday, pledged immediate government help to farmers and homeowners who lost crops and property and the families of those who perished in the fire.
Crews are assessing the damage so that fire-afflicted residents can receive the first compensation packages later this week.
Anastasiades on Monday opened up a bank account for private contributions to help those who lost their homes and livelihoods.
The Cypriot president said to underscore that commitment, he instructed electricity generators to be sent to all villagers who lost power.
He also ordered a renewed tender process for the purchase of a mobile crisis management center, and asked his Cabinet to come up with ideas by Wednesday on how best to support residents financially.
Police spokesman Christos Andreou told The Associated Press that a 67-year-old man is being investigated on arson charges. He said “more than one witness” had seen the man leave his orchard shortly before a fire broke out there. A court ordered that he remain in custody for eight days.
Fire crews had been joined by police officers, soldiers, Civil Defense and Wildlife Service staff as well as many members of the public who volunteered to help. Authorities said more than 70 fire engines, 14 bulldozers and numerous water tankers were mobilized, while a National Guard drone provided eyes overhead to locate new fire fronts.
A total of nine Cypriot firefighting aircraft, and police and National Guard helicopters were deployed. Two helicopters from British military bases in Cyprus also helped firefighting efforts, along with two Greek Canadair CL-415 aircraft and two Israeli fixed-wing planes.
Anastasiades spoke separately with the prime ministers of Greece and Israel to thank them for their help.