In the early hours of Tuesday, Greek specialist aircraft reached Sazan Island off the coast of Vlora to help extinguish flames that have been raging for almost four days.
A widespread fire was discovered on the uninhabited island with fears for firefighters’ safety due to the presence of leftover ammunition.
Yesterday, Defence Minister Niko Peleshi said “experts” had said that air assistance in putting out the blaze was not necessary and only on the ground work was needed. This came after critics questioned the lack of preparedness, lack of aircraft equipped to deposit water, and the failure to bring the flames under control.
Peleshi even told BIRN in a phone call yesterday that air intervention is not necessary.”It’s not that we are not ready,” he said, adding that he would not use a helicopter “to please Sali.”
However, things appear to have changed swiftly by the early hours of this morning.
“Greece immediately responded positively to our request to engage today, early in the morning, a Canadair CL 415 aircraft to extinguish the fire in Sazan. Experts assessed that air intervention is necessary, but the work of the forces on the ground remains essential,” Peleshi wrote on Facebook.
The island sits in the Bay of Vlore and marks the border between the Adriatic and Ionian seas. It has a surface of 5.7km and over the years, it has been home to Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, soviet submarines, the British Royal Navy, and even Italian fascist ruler Benito Mussolini.
Today, it is a popular tourist destination for day trips and has even inspired art exhibitions.
Last year, Peleshi said Albania had only one helicopter with a capacity of 2000 litres of water. This came as a surprise as in 2018, the former Minister of Defense Olta Xhacka organised a public demonstration of what she billed as a “12-fold increase in firefighting capacity”.
A recent investigation by BIRN found that the government failed to pay maintenance contracts and did not guarantee the maintenance of the Cougar helicopters, rendering them all, but one, incapable of flying.
Furthermore, it sheds light on deficiencies in training staff to fly them, meaning the number of people who can respond in an emergency is minute.