Residents of Afidnes village flee forest fires north of Athens, Greece
Thousands of people in Greece fled from a forest fire north of Athens early on Friday as firefighters waged an overnight battle to keep the flames from reaching populated areas, electrical installations and historic sites .
On the neighboring island of Evia, the Greek Coast Guard staged a massive operation with patrol boats and private ships to evacuate hundreds of residents and vacationers by sea as dozens of fires burned across the country for a third day in the middle of a prolonged heat wave.
One of the most serious fires ravaged forest areas 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of the capital, destroying more homes. Ground crews of several hundred firefighters dug firebreaks and sprayed the flames.
Traffic was halted on the country’s main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece as crews attempted to use the road as a firebreak before the water-jettisoned planes resumed their flights at dawn. But sparks and burning pine cones carried the fire across the road to several places.
Several firefighters and volunteers were hospitalized with burns, health officials said. Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said nine people had been taken by ambulance to hospitals in Athens since the fire north of the Greek capital, three of them suffering from respiratory problems, while 11 others were being treated in a health center in Evia.
“We are going through the 10th day of a major heat wave affecting our entire country, the worst heat wave in terms of intensity and duration in 30 years,” said the fire brigade. General Aristotelis Papadopoulos said.
In the Drosopigi region, north of Athens, a resident of Giorgos Hatzispiros went to check his house on Friday morning after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single-storey house remained, as well as the bikes of her two children, somehow unharmed in a storage room. Inside, smoke rose from a still smoking library.
“There is nothing left,” Hatzispiros said. He urged his mother, who was accompanying him, to leave, to spare him the sight of their destroyed house.
In southern Greece, nearly 60 villages and settlements were evacuated Thursday and Friday morning as weather conditions were expected to worsen as strong winds were forecast across much of the country.
Fires were raging on the island of Evia, northeast of Athens, and at several places in the southern Peloponnese region where a fire was stopped before reaching the monuments of Olympia, birthplace of the old Olympics.
A summer palace outside of Athens once used by the ancient Greek royal family has also been spared.
In Evia, the coast guard said their patrol boats, private ships and tourist boats evacuated 631 people overnight and early Friday morning from the beaches on the island’s northeast coast. Coast guard patrols continued along the coast.
Firefighters, water drops, helicopters and vehicles from France, Romania, Sweden and Switzerland arrived on Friday and all weekend to help. Fire crews and planes from Cyprus were already in Greece, as the European Union stepped up support for countries affected by the fires in southeastern Europe. The heat wave also fueled deadly fires in Turkey and across the region.
“Our priority is always the protection of human life, followed by the protection of property, the natural environment and critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, achieving all of these goals at the same time is simply impossible, ”Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday evening. Forest fires, he said, show “the reality of climate change.”
More than 1,000 firefighters, joined by military and volunteer teams, as well as nearly 20 water drops and helicopters battled five major fires across the country, the fire service said.
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a rapid forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of the victims drowned trying to escape through the sea of smothering smoke and flames after becoming trapped on a beach.