Greece on Saturday resumed its battle against wildfires amid scorching heat for the fifth day as forests continued to burn on the island of Evia and the outskirts of the capital, Athens.
One volunteer firefighter has died and at least 20 people have been treated in hospitals. Dozens of fires were burning across the country Saturday, blazes that one official described as "a catastrophe of biblical proportions.”
Scores of homes, businesses and farms have been burnt over the last week in fires that broke out during Greece's most protracted and intense heat wave in three decades.
One massive fire advanced up the slopes of Mount Parnitha, a national park north of Athens that features some of the last substantial forests near the Greek capital. The blaze sent choking smoke across Athens, where authorities set up a hotline for residents with breathing problems. Overnight and throughout the day, fire crews struggled to contain constant flare-ups.
In apocalyptic scenes that went into the night, small ferries and other boats evacuated 1,400 people from a seaside village and beaches on Evia, an island of rugged, forested mountains popular with tourists and campers, after approaching flames cut off other means of escape. Behind them, towering flames and smoke blanketed the hills.
The fire front on Evia alone stretched for nearly 30 kilometers (18 miles), said Fanis Spanos, regional governor of Central Greece. Meanwhile, the situation on the Attica peninsula was described as "more stable." There is, however, concern as winds are expected to pick up pace later in the day, the Fire Brigade said.
Part of a motorway linking Athens to the north of the country that had been shut down as a precaution was reopened Saturday. In northern Evia, where more than 1,300 people fled the fires on ferry boats Friday from the coastal village of Limni, another 23 were evacuated Saturday morning from a nearby beach at Rovies. Navy warships are on high alert off the north of the island in case more evacuations are required.
In Pefkofyto, in the north of Athens, pensioner Tasos Tsilivakos struggled to contain his tears. "This is a horrible disaster," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "I'm really afraid that maybe only our great-grandchildren will have the chance to walk again in these areas."
One 62-year-old man from nearby Agios Stefanos told Alpha TV how, after being evacuated, he had had to watch his house burning on television. "My child is still crying from the shock," he said.
The scale of Greece's wildfires has been breathtaking, with more than 100 breaking out across the country over the past few days. Most were quickly tamed, but several rapidly burned out of control, consuming homes and causing untold ecological damage.
A local official in the Mani region of the Peloponnese estimated the wildfire there had destroyed around 70% of her area. "It’s a catastrophe of biblical proportions. We’re talking about three-quarters of the municipality,” East Mani Deputy Mayor Eleni Drakoulakou told state broadcaster ERT, pleading for more water-dropping aircraft.
Other local officials and residents in southern Greece, near Athens and on Evia, phoned in to television programs, appealing live on air for more firefighting help. Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said firefighters were battling 55 active fires by Saturday afternoon. "We're continuing to fight a very big battle. All night our forces worked hard,” Hardalias said, adding that he expected the fire north of Athens to be contained, barring any unexpected developments, within the day.
More than 850 firefighters, 40 ground teams, three aircraft, six helicopters and 215 vehicles were working to extinguish the flames north of Athens, Hardalias said, with Greek forces reinforced by French, Greek Cypriot and Israeli firefighters.
In Evia, where 39 villages had been evacuated, six aircraft, four helicopters, 475 firefighters and 35 ground teams were operating, including Romanian and Ukrainian firefighters. The army sent 84 special forces personnel, while the navy was providing a torpedo boat, two landing craft and 15 smaller boats to assist in sea evacuations if necessary, Hardalias said.
Greece requested help through the European Union’s emergency support system. Firefighters and aircraft were sent from France, Ukraine, the Greek Cypriot administration, Croatia, Sweden, Israel, Romania and Switzerland. Egypt said Saturday it was sending two helicopters, while 36 Czech firefighters with 15 vehicles left for Greece. Greek authorities also said that Spain was sending a plane.
Fires described as the worst in decades have also swept through stretches of neighboring Turkey's southern coast for the past 10 days, killing eight people. The top Turkish forestry official said 217 fires had been brought under control since July 28 in over half of the country’s provinces, but firefighters still worked Saturday to tame six fires in two Turkish provinces.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the fire department’s headquarters in Athens Saturday and expressed his "deep sadness for what has happened.”
Securing aid for everyone affected by the wildfires would be "my first political priority," he said, promising that all burnt areas would be declared reforestation zones.
"When this nightmarish summer has passed, we will turn all our attention to repairing the damage as fast as possible, and in restoring our natural environment again,” Mitsotakis said.
Evacuation orders for villages and neighborhoods have been constant, sent by push alerts to mobile phones in affected areas, while some police and firefighters have gone door-to-door urging people to leave. The causes of the fires are under investigation.
Hardalias said three people were arrested Friday – in the greater Athens area, central and southern Greece – on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally. Police said the suspect detained north of Athens had allegedly lit fires at three separate spots in the area ravaged by the large blaze, which first broke out Tuesday.
Greece has been baked by its most protracted heat wave in 30 years, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperatures eased Friday but the winds picked up, further exacerbating the situation.
Greek and European officials also have blamed climate change for the large number of fires burning through southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.
A U.N. draft report seen by AFP labeled the Mediterranean region a "climate change hotspot," warning that heat waves, droughts and fires would become more fierce in the future, supercharged by rising temperatures. But the weather gave Turkey some respite Saturday. Officials in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya said the blazes were under control in the southwestern province after rainfall there. And heavy rainfall was expected to continue until the afternoon in areas including Manavgat, one of the areas most affected by the fires.
In Turkey’s southwestern province of Muğla, a popular region for tourists, most fires appeared to be under control Saturday. Municipalities in the town of Marmaris and the wider Muğla province said cooling efforts were ongoing in areas where fires were brought under control. Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said blazes continued in the Milas area, where at least three neighborhoods have been ordered to evacuate.
There have been over 200 fires in 47 of Turkey's 81 provinces, Pakdemirli tweeted early on Saturday. Thirteen fires continue in five provinces.
Municipal officials in Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, said a wildfire was still burning around the Eynif plain, where wild horses live. Wildfires in Manavgat, where blazes raged for days, were reported to be under control.
Massive fires also have been burning across Siberia in Russia’s north for weeks, while hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.
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