Wildfires rip through Greek forests, cut large island in half
Fires fuelled by winds and Greece's longest heat wave in 3 decades
Three large wildfires churned across Greece on Saturday, with one threatening whole towns and cutting Evia, the country's second-largest island, in half. 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 spokesperson 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 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 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 spokesperson told The Associated Press late Saturday that containment efforts were "going well."
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 C.
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 burned 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 Mani estimated the wildfire there had destroyed around 70 per cent 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 support from water-dropping aircraft.
Other officials and residents in southern Greece, near Athens and on Evia, phoned in to television 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, Romania and Switzerland.
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.