Cyprus is the third largest island of the Mediterranean with a total land surface of 925 148 ha. It is divided into three geomorphological zones with a variable topography: (1) the Pentadactylos mountain range, including the Karpass peninsula; (2) the Troodos mountain range; (3) the Mesaoria plain. The central core of the two mountain ranges is characterized by steep slopes, vertical cliffs, deep gorges, narrow streams, and long mountain ridges, while their foothills are characterized by rounded, trapezoid or conical hills, usually with steep lateral slopes. The Mesaoria plain is situated between the two mountain ranges and it is characterized by extensive flat areas and trapezoid or conical hills, usually with steep lateral slopes.
The climate is Mediterranean, characterized by hot dry summers from mid-May to mid-September and rainy, rather changeable, winters from November to mid-March, which are separated by short autumn and spring seasons of rapid change in weather conditions.
The main forest vegetation types are:
Forests, dominated by Pinus brutia, Pinus nigra ssp. pallasiana, Cupressus sempervirens, Platanus orientalis, and Alnus orientalis, with an understorey of tall and low shrubs, sub-shrubs and herbaceous vegetation;
Other wooded land (Maquis and Garrigue), dominated by Juniperus phoenicea, Ceratonia siliqua, Olea europaea, Pistacia lentiscus, Arbutus andrachne, and Quercus coccifera ssp. calliprinos;
Other land (Phrygana), dominated by sub-shrubs, dwarf shrubs of about 50 cm high, like Sarcopoterium spinosum, Thymus capitatus,Cistus spp. etc. These forest vegetation types cover 42.32 percent of the total area of Cyprus (see Table 1).
Acording to the witness of Eratosthenis, quoted in Strabo’s Geography, « in ancient times the plains (of Cyprus) were thickly overgrown with forests and therefore were covered with woods and not cultivated » (Geography of Strabo 1989). The reverse course for the forests of Cyprus started from the Copper Age onwards. The existing fragmentary evidence shows that they suffered from heavy and uncontrolled fellings, till the end of the Turkish occupation in 1878, but there is no supporting evidence of the contribution of fire to the devastation of the forests. Despite the lack of evidence about fire occurrence, we can not exclude fire from the factors which contributed to their devastation. After the arrival of the British in 1878, the Colonial Government introduced the Forest law. Since that time, extensive areas were officially declared as State Forest lands and their protection was based on the existing laws. The great majority of the State Forest lands consist of large areas with definite boundaries. Although these lands had better management, wildfires continued to affect them in a serious way. The causes were mainly: opposition to the forest laws, political upheavals, the conversion of forest land into agricultural land, grazing, and the production of fuel.
During the last decades, due to the gradual abandonment of the agricultural lands, extensive privately owned areas are covered with forest vegetation. Recent surveys showed that 17.58 percent of the total area of Cyprus are State Forest lands and 24.74 percent are privately owned forested lands (see Tab.1). The privately owned forested lands consist of numerous small holdings, which belong to many individuals scattered all over Cyprus. Hence, they are not officially declared as forest lands. The protection of these areas is not based on an integrated fire management plan and periodically they are subject to destructive fires. The main fire causes are: agricultural activities such as the burning of stubble and grasses, hunting, recreation activities, military exercises, and burning of rubbish.
Tab.1. Percentage of the forest vegetation types based on the total area of Cyprus
Wildfire was one of the major agents that contributed to the degradation of forests in Cyprus. There is a strong relationship between wildfires and forest degradation. The impacts get worst if wildfires are accompanied by grazing. However, the ecological role of wildland fires is different depending on the vegetation type. In Pinus brutia forests that represent more than 90 percent of the forest vegetation type, the understory vegetation is totally burned after a fire and bare soil is exposed – a condition that favours natural regeneration. However, a number of other factors intervene that make successful natural regeneration a rare case. These factors include: destruction of mature stands which are able to produce viable seeds, the time period of fire whereby cones are destroyed as they ripen, and the weather conditions during the first summer which affect seedling mortality. In the other forest vegetation types (other wooded land and other land), natural regeneration is successful since coppice and seedlings are easily established. However, the fire frequency along with the slope of the area, grazing practices, and weather conditions can lead to severe degradation of these other vegetation types.
Major wildfire impacts
During the 1990s, the fires affected both privately owned and government-owned lands. Some of these fires had serious impacts on climax vegetation. Juniper trees, which are destroyed by fires, do not regenerate. Basic recolonization is usually of poorly diversified shrub associations (Cistus spp.). Fires affect not only forest vegetation but also agricultural crops; and they can cause mental anguish to people and affect their welfare. Productive forests were destroyed resulting in serious economic losses; planted trees and natural regeneration were destroyed; the removal of plant cover in combination with torrential rainfall resulted in excessive erosion and lost of soil; sites of ecological value, sites of aesthetic value, and important flora and fauna species were affected; agricultural crops and other properties were seriously damaged; part of the natural habitat of the endemic moufflon (Ovis gmelini ophion) was affected, and a few animals were burned. Furthermore, houses were partly or totally destroyed; and a Forest Officer lost his life during fire fighting, being the first human loss during the fire history of Cyprus since 1878.
During the decade 1990-1999, the number of wildfires, in the State Forest lands was 196 and the area burned was 7 770 ha. For detailed information see Table 2. For the time being there are no records for the privately-owned forested areas. For comparison with the 1980s: Table 3 shows the wildland fire database for the period 1980-1989.
Tab. 2. Forest fires in Cyprus for the decade 1990 – 1999
Tab. 3. Forest fires in Cyprus for the decade 1980 – 1989
* Includes fires that broke out in State Forest Land , or fires that broke out in the private land within a distance of 1 km from the boundaris of the State Forest lands (the responsibility for suppression of these fires lies under the Department of Forests).
** Not Available
*** The number in parenthesis indicates the number of fires for each human cause
Note: fires in occupied areas are not included.
Operational fire management system and organization
In Cyprus, the Government is responsible for fire prevention, detection, and suppression of wildland fires. Wildland fires in Cyprus are distinguished into two categories: (1) the fires occurring in State Forest land or in the privately-owned lands, situated within a distance of 1 km from the boundary of the State Forest land; (2) the fires occurring in the privately-owned lands, other than those specified in category (1).
Category 1: The responsible Authority is the Department of Forests of the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment. The prevention, pre-suppression, and suppression of these fires are the exclusive responsibility of this Department. Furthermore, the Department is responsible for the detection of forest fires within the State Forest land using a well-organized detection system. All these actions are achieved through the organization and integrated fire management plan of this Department.
Category 2: The prevention and suppression of these fires are based on an action plan. According to this plan, the technical aspect of the suppression of these fires is shared between the Fire Brigade Service of the Ministry of Justice and Public Order and the Department of Forests and other Government Services. The preventive measures and the co-ordination of the suppression are handled by the District Officers of the Ministry of Interior. The detection of the fires in this category is based partly on the detection system of the Department of Forests and partly on other means.
The municipalities and the communities do not participate in the fire management activities, apart from the co-operation, to some degree, with the authorities involved. Furthermore, an effort is made to create voluntary groups in the various communities. There is no fire research program at the present time.
Use of prescribed fire in order to achieve management objectives
The whole structure of the forested areas of Cyprus, in connection with the structure of the agricultural lands, does not favour prescribed fire in order to achieve management objectives. In exceptional cases, the Department of Forests applies prescribed fire in areas adjacent to the State Forests only for the purpose of reducing the fire hazard. Farmers, too, use prescribed fire as a management tool to clear and prepare the land for agricultural purposes.
Sustainable land-use practices employed in the country to reduce wildfire hazards and wildfire risks
Unfortunately, land-use practices are not employed as a tool to reduce wildfire hazards and risks. However, other measures are taken to reduce the wildfire hazards in the State Forest land, including fuelbreaks along ridges, around picnic and camping sites, along boundaries, the construction of roads, the pruning of roadside vegetation and plantations, and thinning operations. Wildfire risks are addressed through education and information, law enforcement, and patrolling.
The reduction of wildfire hazards in the privately owned-forested areas is not sufficient because the owners are not willing to co-operate. The government or the local communities construct fuelbreaks in a few places, but not as a part of agricultural, pastoral, or recreational activities. Wildfire risks are addressed through general education, information programs, and law enforcement.
Public policies concerning fire
Effective protection of the State Forests against fires is provided by the Forest Law. The responsible Authority for the enforcement of this law is the Department of Forests. Fire suppression is governed by a Fire Suppression Action Plan. Furthermore, the Forest Policy and National Program provide for the protection of forests and ecosystems and the suppression of fires in the State Forests. More specifically, the Forest Policy includes these objectives: (a) protection against fires and other hazards, (b) conservation of ecosystems, flora, fauna, and heritage, and (c) watershed management and protection.
The protection of the areas of the countryside, which are not covered by the Forest Law, is covered under the provisions of the Law for the Prevention and Control of Fires in the Countryside. A Fire Suppression Action Plan is in force and the responsible Authority for the coordination and administration of the firefighting effort is the District Officer of each District. Fire management in these areas faces many problems. For overall fire management preparedness, it is important to have an integrated set of measures covering prevention, detection, pre-suppression, and suppression.
The author wishes to thank the Conservators of Forests Mr. Aristos Ioannou and Mr. Charalampos Alexandrou for their invaluable help and useful suggestions.
Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment