EU sends help as Greek island residents flee wildfire by sea

A man uses a water hose during a wildfire in Adames area, in northern Athens, Greece (Michael Varaklas/AP)
17:32pm, Wed 04 Aug 2021
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Coastguard vessels helped with evacuations on Wednesday on the Greek island of Evia, where residents escaping wildfires fled to a beach for safety.

Fire crews across the country struggled amid a record heat wave to contain new blazes, including one near the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.

The European Union sent assistance to Greece and other countries in south-east Europe that are grappling with huge wildfires after a blaze Tuesday burned more than 100 homes and businesses near the Greek capital of Athens.

No deaths or severe injuries have been reported from any of the Greek wildfires.

A burned car is seen after a wildfire in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. More than 500 firefighters struggled through the night to contain a large forest blaze on the outskirts of Athens, which raced into residential areas Tuesday, forcing thousands to flee. It was the worst of 81 wildfires that broke out in Greece over the past 24 hours, amid one of the country’s most intense heatwaves in decades. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Evacuations were also taking place in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region, which was facing a major fire near ancient Olympia — where the Olympics were held every four years from 776 B.C. for more than a millennium.

The adjacent town of Ancient Olympia was ordered evacuated as a precaution, as were another seven nearby villages. The area was ravaged by major wildfires in 2007 that cost dozens of lives.

The coast guard said about 85 people were stranded on a beach near the village of Rovies in Evia, adding that private boats were also helping in the evacuation. Media reports said three firefighters suffered burns. Several homes were burnt as well as swaths of forest.

Temperatures in parts of Greece reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, in what authorities describe as the worst heat wave since 1987.

Neighbouring countries are facing similar conditions, fuelling deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and across the Mediterranean region.

Officials in Albania said one person had died of smoke inhalation outside the southern city of Gjirokaster, where wildfires caused hundreds of residents to flee.

An EU disaster response group said assistance, including firefighters and water-dropping planes, were being sent from EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.

“Following the situation with great concern. European solidarity is at work to fight these terrible fires,” EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen wrote in a tweet.

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, which also showed that the intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

Outside Athens, the Fire Service took advantage of cooler morning hours to send low-flying helicopters and planes to dump water on charred forests around Tatoi, 12 and a half miles north of Athens, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze. At least 80 cars were burned.

Sheep gather during a wildfire near Limni village on the island of Evia (Thodoris Nikolaou/AP)

“The ground crews did vital work, (fighting) nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control centre.

“We had no loss of human life. … Homes will be rebuilt and over time the forest will grow back.”

Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to douse the flames, and water-dropping buckets were attached to military helicopters.

Authorities said more than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and more than 500 people spent the night in hotels.

The fire outside Athens sent clouds of smoke over the Greek capital, obscuring visibility and prompting health authorities to warn people with breathing difficulties to remain indoors.

The blaze raged very close to a large forested estate and palace that once belonged to Greece’s royal family and is now a public park but Greece’s Culture Ministry said Wednesday that the Tatoi estate was not harmed.

It said artefacts “of particular historic and artistic value” were removed from storage areas in the estate as a precaution on Tuesday and overnight.

Under a major restoration programme, thousands of artefacts from the former palace — including ceremonial carriages, luxury cars, antiquities, paintings and clothes — have been stored for years in sheds on the estate pending their conservation and future exhibition.

Flames burn a forrest during a wildfire in Adames area, in northern Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.Thousands of people fled their homes north of Athens on Tuesday as a wildfire broke out of the forest and reached residential areas. The hurried evacuations took place just as Greece grappled with its worst heat wave in decades. (AP Photo/Michael Varaklas)

Sporadic power outages were reported near the fire after the flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding more strains to Greece’s overloaded national grid.

Authorities said 81 wildfires had been reported from late Monday to late Tuesday.

The leafy Athens suburbs of Varibobi and Tatoi lie at the foot of Mount Parnitha, next to large forests of mainly pine trees.

The fire, which began on Tuesday afternoon inside the forest, quickly raced through the pines and reached the main square of Varibobi.

The EU Commission said two firefighting airplanes from France are being sent to Italy, while Cyprus sent two planes and a ground crew to help Greece.

The Netherlands and Czech Republic sent a helicopter each to Albania, and Slovenia is sending 45 firefighters to North Macedonia.

The heat wave is forecast to hover over Greece until the end of the week.

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