24 August 2023

Major wildfires in Greece force more evacuations

24 August 2023

Major wildfires burning for days in north-eastern Greece and on the fringes of the capital Athens have incinerated more tracts of forest and forced additional evacuations as firefighters struggled against strong winds and arid conditions.

The wildfires have left 20 people dead over the last week.

Eighteen of those, including two boys aged between 10 and 15, are believed to be migrants who crossed the nearby border with Turkey.

Their bodies were found by firefighters near a shack in a burnt forest area near Alexandroupolis in north-eastern Greece.

Sixty firefighters have been injured battling the flames, fire department spokesman Ioannis Artopios said.

Greece’s climate crisis and civil protection minister Vassilis Kikilias said arson was to blame for some of the blazes near Athens.

“Some … arsonists are setting fires, endangering forests, property and above all human lives,” Mr Kikilias said in a televised statement. “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 in the area of Avlona, in the northern foothills of Mount Parnitha near the Greek capital.

“You are committing a crime against the country,” Mr Kikilias said. “You will not get away with it. We will find you, you will be held accountable to justice.”

Elsewhere in Europe, fires on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, north-western Turkey near the border with Greece, Portugal and Italy were being brought under control, officials said.

In Greece, dozens of firefighting aircraft, including from other European countries, assisted crews on the ground trying to beat back multiple fires raging across the country.

On Wednesday alone, firefighters battled 99 separate blazes across the country, authorities said.

The wildfire in the Alexandroupolis region, burning for a sixth day, combined with smaller fires to create a massive inferno that has consumed homes and vast tracts of forest and triggered multiple evacuations of villages and of the city’s hospital.

With more than 730 square kilometres (282 square miles) burned, the combined blazes “are now the largest wildfires on record the EU has faced”, European commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“We must continue strengthening national & collective prevention and preparedness efforts in view of more brutal fire seasons,” he tweeted.

On the outskirts of Athens, a major fire that destroyed homes in the foothills of Mount Parnitha on Wednesday was racing across the mountain’s forested slopes and threatened the heart of a national park that is one of the last wooded areas near the Greek capital.

Evacuation orders were issued for several outlying suburbs overnight into Thursday, while other neighbourhoods were put on standby for possible evacuation.

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece has asked other European countries for assistance.

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

Mr Artopios said 260 firefighters, including more than a dozen from France, were battling the Parnitha fire supported by a multinational force of 10 planes and 11 helicopters.

Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian and Czech firefighters with vehicles were helping in the Alexandroupolis fire.

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.

Gale-force winds combined with hot, dry weather to whip up the flames over the past week in Greece, making the blazes exceptionally difficult to bring under control.

Weather conditions this summer have been “the worst since meteorological data have been gathered and the fire risk map has been issued in the country”, Mr Kikilias said.

Extensive parts of the country have been placed at Level 5 – the highest for fire risk – seven times this year.

Mr Kikilias said that was double the number of 2021, four times that of 2019 and seven times more than in 2012.

In Spain’s Tenerife, a fire that has scorched 150 square kilometres (58 square miles) was being brought under control by Wednesday night.

“It’s a very tough battle that the firefighting teams are winning,” Canary regional government official Manuel Miranda said on Wednesday evening.

In Turkey, firefighters in the north-western Canakkale province on Thursday brought a wildfire under control less than 48 hours after it erupted amid high temperatures and strong winds, Turkish forestry minister Ibrahim Yumakli said.

Mr Yumakli said the fire, which had forced the evacuation of 11 villages, had affected 40 square kilometres (15 square miles) including 14 square kilometres (5.4 square miles) of agricultural land.

A firefighting volunteer who was injured and six other people who suffered from smoke inhalation were being kept under observation in hospital, Mr Yumakli said.

“We are extremely happy that there was no loss of life,” Mr Yamukli said.

“However, we are heartbroken for other creatures of the ecosystem that were affected.”

Shipping traffic through the Dardanelles Strait, a major maritime thoroughfare linking the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, was being partially restored to one lane only, after being completely suspended as fire-dousing aircraft use the waterway to pick up water.

Mr Yumakli said another fire in central Turkey has also been brought under control and there were no other active wildfires in the country on Thursday.

Two large fires in Portugal and a smaller one in Italy were brought under control by Thursday, those countries’ authorities said, but temperatures – and the risk of new fires – remained high.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox