Major wildfires burn in Greece, Spain’s Canary Island of Tenerife
August 21, 2023 By Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Major wildfires were burning in Greece and on one of Spain’s Canary Islands off the African coast Monday, with hot, dry and windy conditions hampering the efforts of hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes, two of which have been burning for several days.
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.
In Greece, authorities ordered the evacuation of two villages in the central Viotia region, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Athens, after a forest fire broke out Monday morning. The coast guard put two patrol boats and several fishing boats and private vessels on standby in case an evacuation by sea was necessary.
Authorities said the body of a man was recovered from a sheep pen in the area under evacuation, with local media reporting the man apparently died of smoke inhalation while trying to save his livestock.
In the northeast of the country near the border with Turkey, strong winds rekindled flames on several fronts in a major wildfire burning for a third day across forests and farmland near the town of Alexandroupolis.
Several homes were destroyed over the weekend. Thirteen villages were evacuated, while more than 200 firefighters, assisted by 17 water-dropping aircraft volunteers and the armed forces were battling the fire, Deputy Fire Chief Ioannis Artopios said.
Another two villages were being evacuated on the island of Evia, near Athens, where 19 French firefighters also helped fight the flames, Artopios said, noting that 65 forest fires had broken out across Greece in the previous 24 hours.
Cyprus was sending two firefighting aircraft to help tackle the Alexandroupolis blaze, including four crew and five ground support staff.
With gale-force winds blowing in several parts of the country, authorities set the fire risk level in several regions, including that of the Greek capital, to “extreme.”
“This extreme situation we are experiencing will further favor the outbreak and spread of forest fires,” Artopios said.
Greece suffers destructive wildfires every summer, which officials say have been exacerbated by climate change.
Greece’s deadliest wildfire killed 104 people in 2018, in a seaside resort near Athens that residents had not been warned to evacuate. Since then, authorities have erred on the side of caution, issuing swift mass evacuation orders whenever inhabited areas are under threat.
Last month a wildfire on the resort island of Rhodes forced the evacuation of some 20,000 tourists. Days later, two air force pilots were killed when their water-dropping plane crashed while diving low to tackle a blaze on the island of Evia. Another three wildfire-related deaths have been recorded this summer.
In Spain’s Canary Islands, a wildfire that police say was started deliberately last Tuesday on Tenerife continued to burn out of control, although the worst seemed to have passed. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and about 13,400 hectares (33,000 acres) of pine forest and scrubland have burned.
Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the fire area would be declared a catastrophe zone, entitling the island to funds to help with reforestation and compensation for people affected.
Canary Island regional President Fernando Clavijo told Spain’s Cadena SER radio “the worst is over,” adding that the hundreds of firefighters deployed had made some progress for the second night in a row.
The fire in the northeast of the island is not near any of the islands’ main tourist areas. The blaze has come close to some 10 municipalities, but there have been no injuries or burned homes so far.
In Portugal and Italy, two other southern European countries often plagued by wildfires in the summer months, temperatures were predicted to soar this week.
Italian authorities issued heat warnings for eight cities from Bolzano in the north to Rome in central Italy on Monday as temperatures were forecast to hit 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). Storm warnings were in effect in the southern regions of Calabria, Basilicata and Sicily.
In Portugal, temperatures were forecast to reach 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in some southern parts of the country.
Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Colleen Barry in Milan and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed.