Fires ravage forests in Greece; thousands of evacuees

In apocalyptic scenes that unfolded overnight, small ferries and other boats evacuated 1,400 people from a seaside village and beaches in Evia, an island of rugged and wooded mountains popular with tourists and campers alike, after approaching the cut flames of other means of escape. Behind them towering flames and smoke blanketed the hills.

The scale of the forest fires in Greece has been mind-boggling, with more than 100 fires across the country in the past few days. Most were quickly tamed, but several quickly burned uncontrollably, consuming homes and causing untold ecological damage.

A local official in the Mani region of the Peloponnese estimated that the forest fire had destroyed around 70% of its area.

“It’s a biblical catastrophe. We are talking about three quarters of the municipality, ”East Mani deputy mayor Drakoulakou told state broadcaster ERT, pleading for more water jets.

Other local officials and residents of southern Greece, near Athens and Evia, telephoned on TV programs, calling live for more help to fight the fires.

Civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias said firefighters were fighting 55 active fires on Saturday afternoon.

“We continue to fight a very big battle. All night long our forces have been working hard, ”said Hardalias, adding that he expected the fire north of Athens to be contained, barring unexpected developments, in the day.

More than 850 firefighters, 40 ground crews, three planes, six helicopters and 215 vehicles were working to put out the flames north of Athens, Hardalias said, with Greek forces reinforced by French, Cypriot and Israeli firefighters.

In Euboea, where 39 villages had been evacuated, six planes, four helicopters, 475 firefighters and 35 ground teams were operating, including Romanian and Ukrainian firefighters. The military sent 84 special forces members, while the navy provided a torpedo boat, two landing craft and 15 smaller boats to help with sea evacuations if needed, Hardalias said.

Greece has asked for help through the European Union’s emergency aid system. Firefighters and planes were dispatched from France, Ukraine, Cyprus, Croatia, Sweden, Israel, Romania and Switzerland. Egypt said on Saturday it was sending two helicopters, while 36 Czech firefighters with 15 vehicles left for Greece, and Greek authorities said Spain was also sending a plane.

Fires described as the worst in decades have also swept across swathes of neighboring Turkey’s southern coast in the past 10 days, killing eight people. Turkey’s senior forestry official said 217 fires had been brought under control since July 28 in more than half of the country’s provinces, but firefighters continued to work on Saturday to control six fires in two Turkish provinces.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the fire brigade in Athens on Saturday and expressed “deep sadness for what happened”.

Ensuring aid to all those affected by the forest fires would be “my first political priority,” he said, promising that all burnt areas would be declared reforestation areas.

“When this nightmarish summer is over, we will turn our full attention to repairing the damage as quickly as possible and restoring our natural environment,” Mitsotakis said.

Greece suffered its longest heat wave in 30 years, with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperatures calmed down on Friday but the winds picked up, making the situation even worse.

Orders to evacuate villages and neighborhoods have been constant, sent by push alerts to cellphones 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 on Friday – in the greater Athens region, in central and southern Greece – on suspicion of starting fires, in two cases intentionally. Police said the suspect detained north of Athens started fires in three separate locations in the area ravaged by the big blaze, which first broke out on Tuesday.

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

In Turkey’s seaside province of Mugla, an area popular with tourists, some fires appeared to be under control on Saturday and cooling efforts were underway. The forestry minister said the fires were continuing in the Milas region. Environmental groups have urged authorities to protect the forests of Sandras Mountain from nearby fires.

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

City officials in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, said a forest fire was still burning around the Eynif Plain, where wild horses live.

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

In the United States, hot, dry and gusty weather also fueled devastating forest fires in California.

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