A firefighter died Monday after being crushed when his truck overturned as he tackled a large forest fire that continues to rage out of control on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, so far scorching 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles) of trees and countryside.
President Nicos Anastasiades said in a written statement that he was devastated at the news that Andreas Sophocleous succumbed to injuries and two other firefighters who were in the vehicle were seriously hurt. Another firefighter remains in critical but stable condition after suffering head injuries when his vehicle overturned in a gully in an earlier accident, while his colleague sustained a broken arm.
Police say a 12-year-old boy is suspected of starting the fire with a lighter near his family's holiday home.
Anastasiades praised the 49-year-old Sophocleous as well as hundreds of his colleagues on the front lines making “superhuman efforts” in fighting the blaze and “ready to sacrifice even their lives in the line of duty.”
A total of 16 aircraft, including four planes and helicopters from Greece and three fixed-wing aircraft from Israel, are helping fight the blaze - the most ever employed on a fire in Cyprus, according to Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos. The aircraft have been grounded for Monday night and are expected to resume flights at dawn.
Anastasiades said the damage done to a large swath of forest in the mountainous regions southwest of the capital is “irreparable,” but nonetheless promised a speedy reforestation program.
He said 66 firefighting vehicles and more than 300 people from the island's fire service and forestry department, as well as dozens of volunteers, have been mobilized to fight the blaze that has covered the area with thick plumes of smoke.
“It's truly a tragic situation. ... Were doing all we can to bring the fire under control,” said Anastasiades after chairing a meeting of top Fire Service, Police and Interior Ministry officials.
Anastasiades said he has thanked Mustafa Akinci, leader of the ethnically split island's breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, for offering help in firefighting efforts, but assistance from Greece, Israel and two British military bases on Cyprus are enough at the moment.
Officials said optimism the fire can soon be brought under control is tempered by the difficult terrain, high temperatures and shifting winds that are making firefighting efforts difficult.
Deputy Fire Service Operations Chief Marcos Tragkolas said at least three villages have been partly evacuated as a precautionary measure.