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Thousands evacuated in Greece as fires continue to rage

Thousands of residents and vacationers in areas where fires broke out days ago have fled by land and by sea as firefighters and volunteers battled through the night.

A man watches the flames as wildfire approaches Kochyli beach near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of Athens, Greece, late Friday, August 6, 2021. (AP)

Wildfires rampaged through some of Greece’s last remaining forests for yet another day, encroaching on more inhabited areas after burning scores of homes, businesses and farms during the country’s worst heat wave in three decades.

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One of the massive fires advanced up the slopes of Mount Parnitha, a national park north of Athens and one of the last substantial forests near the Greek capital.

The blaze sent choking smoke across the capital region, where authorities set up a hotline for residents with breathing problems. Throughout the day, fire crews struggled to contain constant flare-ups.

Thousands of residents and vacationers in areas where fires broke out days ago have fled by land and by sea as firefighters and volunteers battled through the night.

Apocalyptic scenes

In apocalyptic scenes overnight and into Saturday morning, ferries evacuated 1,153 people from a seaside village and beaches on Evia, an island of rugged, forested mountains popular with holidaymakers and campers, after approaching flames cut off other means of escape.

People clutched babies and helped elderly people traverse a pebble beach to the small ferries. Behind them, towering flames and smoke blanketed the forested hills.

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.

To the south, in the Mani region of the Peloponnese, the site of one major fire, a local official estimated that around 70% of her area had been destroyed.

“It’s a biblical catastrophe. We’re talking about three-quarters of the municipality,” East Mani Deputy Mayor Drakoulakou told state broadcaster ERT, pleading for more water-dropping aircraft.

Other local officials and residents in southern Greece, near Athens and on Evia also made televised appeals for more firefighting help, particularly air support.

The Greek government requested backing for its stretched resources through the European Union’s emergency support system. Firefighters and aircraft have arrived from France, Ukraine, Cyprus, Croatia, Sweden and Israel, with more arriving Saturday from Romania and Switzerland.

Egypt said Saturday it was sending two helicopters to Greece, while 36 Czech firefighters with 15 vehicles were expected to arrive early Monday.

In Greece, the fire that broke out north of Athens killed a volunteer firefighter on Friday. At least 20 people have been injured in blazes nationwide.

Greek Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said on Friday evening that firefighters faced “exceptionally dangerous, unprecedented conditions” as they battled 154 wildfires this week, with 64 still burning into the night.

Aid promise

“Over the past few days, we have been facing a situation without precedent in our country, in the intensity and wide distribution of the wildfires, and the new outbreaks all over (Greece),” he said. “I want to assure you that all forces available are taking part in the fight.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the fire department’s headquarters in Athens on Saturday morning and expressed his “deep sadness for what has happened.”

He said that securing aid for everyone affected by the wildfires would be “my first political priority.” He also promised that all burnt areas would be declared reforestation zones.

“With great effort, and I believe with the participation of society, 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.

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 winds picked up, further exacerbating the situation.

Evacuations

Evacuation orders for villages and neighbourhoods have been constant, sent by push alerts to mobile phones in affected areas, while police and firefighters have gone door-to-door urging people to leave homes in the path of the flames.

On Friday, shifting winds and new flash points caused the blazes to the north of Athens and on Evia to repeatedly change direction, in some cases returning to burn areas and homes that had narrowly escaped destruction earlier in the week.

Authorities urged Athens residents to wear masks outdoors and to close windows in their homes due to the dense smoke clouding the capital . They also set up the free information for anxious callers to seek information about breathing difficulties.

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.

Greek and European officials also have blamed climate change for a large number of summer fires burning through southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

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