Flames devour forests and homes as wildfires that have left 20 dead in Greece burn out of control
August 23, 2023 By Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Advancing flames devoured forests and homes as dozens of wildfires raged across Greece on Wednesday, leaving 20 people dead over the past three days, while major blazes also burned in northwestern Turkey near the Greek border and on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.
Greece’s largest forest fire was burning out of control for the fifth day near the city of Alexandroupolis in the northeast, while another major blaze on the northwestern fringe of Athens was torching homes and heading into Parnitha national park, one of the last green areas near the Greek capital, sending plumes of smoke over the city.
Firefighters tackled 355 forest fires over five days from Friday to Tuesday, Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said Wednesday, including 209 over the last 48 hours alone.
Gale-force winds combined with hot, dry summer conditions to whip up the flames, making the blazes exceptionally difficult to bring under control., authorities said.
This summer’s weather conditions have been “the worst since meteorological data have been gathered and the fire risk map has been issued in the country,” Kikilias said at a news conference. Extensive parts of the country have been placed at Level 5, the highest for fire risk, seven times so far this year, which Kikilias said was double the number in 2021, four times that of 2019 and seven times more than in 2012.
Authorities issued dozens of evacuation orders for villages and seaside areas this week, with the coast guard and private boats plucking some people from beaches and coasts. The main hospital in Alexandroupolis was evacuated overnight Monday, with nearly 70 of its more than 200 patients transferred to a ferry docked in the city’s port turned into a temporary floating hospital.
Although winds were gradually abating in many parts of the country, the risk of new fires remained high.
“Conditions remain difficult and in many cases extreme,” fire department spokesperson Ioannis Artopios said.
Firefighters searching recently burnt areas in the Alexandroupolis region, which is near the border with Turkey, discovered the bodies of 18 people believed to be migrants in a forest Tuesday. Two other people were found dead on Monday, one in northern Greece and another in a separate fire in central Greece.
With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece called for assistance from other European countries. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent water-dropping aircraft, Romania and the Czech Republic sent dozens of firefighters and water tanks, and French firefighters were helping tackle a persistent wildfire on the island of Evia.
Evacuations were ordered for several neighbourhoods and a migrant camp on the northwestern fringe of the Greek capital, as a wildfire that started Tuesday raced up a mountain toward Parnitha national park, threatened a military base in the area and torched homes in the foothills.
More than 200 firefighters backed by volunteers, military and police forces, eight helicopters and seven planes, including two from Germany and two from Sweden, were battling the blaze.
The fire in Alexandroupolis continued to burn out of control, with dozens of Romanian firefighters joining the battle, backed by eight helicopters and five planes, including two from Cyprus.
Supreme Court prosecutor Georgia Adilini asked the Alexandroupolis prosecutor to launch investigations into whether organized arson groups were operating in the region.
Kikilias said the fire in the northeastern border region started in 15 different places inside a forest, with strong winds and dry conditions contributing to create a massive fire front.
“Any firefighting forces, no matter how strong they were, would not have been able to bring it under control,” Kikilias said.
Adilini also asked the Alexandroupolis prosecutor to investigate incidents of racist violence after three men in the Alexandroupolis area allegedly sequestered 13 migrants whom they accused of being linked to the wildfire.
Police late Tuesday arrested one Albanian and two Greek nationals on suspicion of imprisoning the 13 Syrians and Pakistanis in a car trailer. A video posted online showed one of the three referring to the migrants in terminology used for livestock and urging other members of the public to round up migrants.
The three were charged Wednesday with a series of crimes, including kidnapping, and were being held pending a preliminary court hearing.
Across the border in Turkey’s Canakkale province, strong winds were fanning a wildfire for a second day.
Authorities evacuated an elderly care home and more than 1,250 people from nine villages and closed down a highway. More than 80 people were treated in hospitals for the effects of smoke.
Ibrahim Yumakli, Turkey’s forestry minister, said firefighting teams and more than two dozen fire-dousing planes and helicopters had largely blocked the blaze from spreading beyond the 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) it has affected so far.
Authorities also suspended maritime traffic through the narrow Dardanelles Strait linking the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which the water-dropping aircraft were using to refill, the minister said.
On Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, authorities said a wildfire burning for more than a week was nearly under control after scorching 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres).
“It’s a very tough battle that the firefighting teams are winning,” said Canary regional government counselor Manuel Miranda.
Authorities said firefighters were working on securing the perimeter, which had reached 88 kilometres (55 miles).
Spain is sweltering under its fourth heatwave this summer. The country’s weather service said up to 16 temperature records for August were broken Tuesday.
Sporadic fires were also reported in Italy, which has been engulfed in a heatwave expected to extend into the weekend with temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius (100 F) in many cities. Forty firefighters and three aircraft were battling a brush fire that broke out early Wednesday on the outskirts of the Ligurian seaside town of Sanremo, a popular summer destination. No injuries or property damage were reported.
With their hot, dry summers, southern European countries are particularly prone to wildfires.
European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.
Costas Kantouris in Alexandroupolis, Suzan Frazer in Ankara, David Brunat in Barcelona and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.
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