Wildfires rampage in Greek forests, cut large island in half

International News

A man watches the flames as wildfire approaches Kochyli beach near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Athens, Greece, late Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Wildfires raged uncontrolled through Greece and Turkey for yet another day Friday, forcing thousands to flee by land and sea, and killing a volunteer firefighter on the fringes of Athens in a huge forest blaze that threatened the Greek capital’s most important national park. (AP Photo/Thodoris Nikolaou)

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Three large wildfires churned across Greece on Saturday, with one threatening whole towns and cutting a line across Evia, the country’s second-largest island, isolating its northern part. Others engulfed forested mountainsides and skirted ancient sites, leaving behind a trail of destruction that one official described as “a biblical catastrophe.”

A flotilla of 10 ships — two Coast Guard patrols, two ferries, two passenger ships and four fishing boats — waited at the seaside resort of Pefki, near the northern tip of Evia, ready to evacuate more residents and tourists if needed, a Coast Guard spokeswoman told The Associated Press, on customary condition of anonymity.

Firefighters were fighting through the night to save Istiaia, a town of 7,000 in northern Evia, as well as several villages, using bulldozers to open up clear paths in the thick forest.

The fire on Evia forced the hasty Friday night evacuation of about 1,400 people from a seaside village and island beaches by a motley assortment of boats after the approaching flames cut off other means of escape.

The other dangerous fires were one in Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula, near Ancient Olympia and one in Fokida, in the Central Greece Region, north of Athens. The fire in Ancient Olympia moved east, away from the ancient site, threatening villages in a sudden flare-up Saturday afternoon.

North of Athens, the fire on Mount Parnitha, a national park with substantial forests, was still burning with occasional flare-ups, but a Fire Service spokesman told the AP late Saturday that containment efforts were “going well.” Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias told reporters Saturday night that firefighters hoped to contain the fire Sunday.

Smoke from that fire was still spreading across the Athens basin. Earlier, the blaze had sent choking smoke across the Greek capital, where authorities set up a hotline for residents with breathing problems.

One volunteer firefighter died Friday and at least 20 people have been treated in hospitals over the last week during Greece’s most intense heat wave in three decades. Temperatures soared up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Saturday visited the fire department’s headquarters in Athens and expressed his “deep sadness” for the firefighter’s death. He later visited the airport, west of Athens, from which firefighting planes take off and thanked the pilots, Greek as well as French, who arrived to support the firefighting effort.

Securing aid for everyone affected by the wildfires will be “my first political priority,” he said, promising that all burnt areas would be reforested.

“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.

A local official in the Mani area of southern Peloponnese, south of Sparta, estimated the wildfire there had destroyed around 70% of her area.

“It’s a biblical catastrophe. 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 officials and residents in southern Greece phoned in to TV programs, appealing live on air for more firefighting help.

Greece requested help through the European Union’s emergency support system. Firefighters and aircraft were sent from France, Spain, Ukraine, Cyprus, Croatia, Sweden, Israel, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and the United States.

On Saturday alone, Germany’s Disaster Assistance agency tweeted that 52 firefighters and 17 vehicles from Bonn and 164 firemen and 27 vehicles from Hessen were heading to Athens to help. Egypt said it was sending two helicopters, while 36 Czech firefighters with 15 vehicles left for Greece.

The causes of the fires are under investigation. Three people were arrested Friday — in the greater Athens area, central and southern Greece — on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally.

Another person, a 47-year-old Greek, was arrested Saturday afternoon in the Athens suburb of Petroupoli for lighting two fires in a grove and setting four dumpsters on fire, police said.

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.

Fires described as the worst in decades have swept through stretches of 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 provinces.

In Turkey’s seaside province of Mugla, a popular region for tourists, some fires appeared to be under control Saturday but the forestry minister said blazes were still burning in the Milas area. Environmental groups urged authorities to protect the forests of Sandras Mountain from nearby fires.

Further north, at least six neighborhoods were evacuated due to a wildfire in western Aydin province, where shifting winds were making containment efforts difficult, Turkish media reported.

Municipal officials in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, said a wildfire was still burning around the Eynif plain, where wild horses live.

Massive fires also have been burning across Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, forcing the evacuation Saturday of a dozen villages. In all, wildfires have burned nearly 15 million acres this year in Russia.

In the U.S., hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.

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Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece and Varaklas from Thrakomacedones, Greece. Zeynep Bilginsoy contributed from Istanbul and Petros Karadjias from Arkitsa, Greece.

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