26 August 2023

Greek officials arrest two for arson as wildfires continue to burn

26 August 2023

Greek fire department officials arrested two men on Saturday for allegedly starting wildfires deliberately as hundreds of firefighters battle wildfires that have killed at least 21 people this week.

One man was arrested on Evia for allegedly setting fire to dried grass in the island’s Karystos area deliberately.

The fire department said the man confessed to having set four other fires in the area in July and August.

A second man was arrested in the Larissa area in central Greece, also for allegedly setting fire to dried vegetation deliberately. Judicial authorities were informed in both cases.

Officials have said arson has been to blame for several fires in Greece over the past week, although it is still unclear what sparked the country’s largest blazes, including one in the north-east region of Evros and Alexandroupolis where nearly all the fire-attributed deaths have occurred, and another on the fringes of Athens.

Climate crisis and civil protection minister Vassilis Kikilias said: “Some … arsonists are setting fires, endangering forests, property and above all human lives.

“What is happening is not just unacceptable but despicable and criminal.”

The minister said nine fires had been set in the space of four hours on Thursday morning in the Avlona area in the northern foothills of Mount Parnitha, a mountain on the north-west fringes of Athens that is one of the capital’s last green areas.

A major fire was already burning on the southern side of the mountain at the time, and continued burning Saturday.

“You are committing a crime against the country,” Mr Kikilias added. “We will find you. You will be held accountable to justice.”

Later that day, police arrested a 45-year-old man on suspicion of arson for allegedly setting at least three fires in the Avlona area.

A search of his home revealed kindling, a fire torch gun and pine needles, police said.

Greece has been plagued by the daily outbreak of dozens of fires over the past week as gale-force winds and hot, dry summer conditions combine to whip up flames and hamper firefighting efforts.

On Friday, firefighters were tackling 111 blazes, including 59 that had broken out in the 24 hours between Thursday and Friday evening, the fire department said.

Most are tackled in the early stages, but some have grown to massive blazes that have consumed homes and vast tracts of forest.

Storms were forecast on Saturday for some areas of Greece, and lightning strikes ignited several fires near the Greek capital.

The fire department said 100 firefighters, including contingents from France and Cyprus, backed up by four helicopter, brought fires in four outlying areas near the Greek capital under partial control within hours.

The fire department called on the public “to be particularly careful” and to follow directions by authorities “given that intense thunderstorm activity is occurring in various parts of the country”.

Another blaze broke out on the Cycladic island of Andros on Saturday, where an evacuation order for a village was also issued.

A lightning strike was reportedly suspected as the cause.

The Evros fire, Greece’s largest current blaze, was burning for an eighth day on Saturday near the city of Alexandroupolis after causing at least 20 deaths.

Authorities issued evacuation orders Saturday afternoon for three villages in the area.

Firefighters found 18 bodies in woodland on Tuesday, one on Monday and another Thursday.

With nobody reported missing in the area, authorities believe they could be migrants who recently crossed the border from Turkey.

Greece’s disaster victim identification team has been activated to identify the remains, and a telephone hotline set up for potential relatives of the victims to call.

One more victim — a man reportedly trying to save his livestock from advancing flames in central Greece — died on Monday.

More than 290 firefighters, backed by five planes and two helicopters, were battling the Evros blaze.

By Thursday, the fire had scorched more than 185,000 acres (750 square kilometres) of land, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service.

Copernicus is the EU space program’s Earth observation component and uses satellite imagery to provide mapping data.

A further 260 firefighters, four planes and three helicopters were tackling another fire that has been burning for days on Mount Parnitha, on the north-west fringes of the Greek capital.

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece called on other European countries for help.

Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent aircraft, while dozens of Romanian, French, Czech, Bulgarian, Albanian and Slovak firefighters helped on the ground.

Greece imposes wildfire prevention regulations, typically from the start of May to the end of October, to limit activities such as the burning of dried vegetation and the use of outdoor barbecues.

Government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said that since the start of this year’s fire season, officials have arrested 163 people on fire-related charges, including 118 for negligence and 24 for deliberate arson.

The police made a further 18 arrests, he added.

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