By Elena Becatoros
Firefighters struggled Thursday against strong winds and hot, dry conditions to tame multiple wildfires that for days have burned forests and homes in northeastern Greece and on the fringes of the country’s capital.
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 in northeastern Greece.
Sixty firefighters have been injured battling the flames, fire department spokesman Ioannis Artopios said Thursday.
Elsewhere in Europe, fires on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, northwestern Turkey near the border with Greece, Portugal and Italy were being brought under control, officials 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,” 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 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,” Kikilias said. “You will not get away with it. We will find you, you will be held accountable to justice.”
Dozens of firefighting aircraft, including from other European countries, and hundreds of ground forces were faced with tackling numerous fires across Greece. On Wednesday alone, firefighters battled 99 separate blazes across the country, authorities said.
In Greece’s northeast, a major fire in the Alexandroupolis area that forced several evacuations, including of the city’s general hospital, was burning for a sixth day.
According to the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service, the Alexandroupolis fire had scorched more than 723 square kilometres by Wednesday, making it one of the largest on European soil in several years. Copernicus is the EU space program’s Earth observation component and uses satellite imagery to provide mapping data.
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 sent aircraft, while dozens of Romanian, French, Czech, Bulgarian and Albanian firefighters have been helping on the ground.
Artopios, the Greek fire department spokesman, said 260 firefighters, including more than a dozen from France, were battling the Parnitha fire supported by 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.
In Spain’s Tenerife, a fire that has scorched 150 square kilometres was being brought under control.
Canary Island regional President Fernando Clavijo said Thursday the blaze had “not gained a single square meter” for the first time in over a week.
He said firefighters hope to declare the fire totally under control later Thursday, but warned that high afternoon temperatures could ignite more pockets of fire. Of the 12,000 people forced to evacuate their homes earlier in the week, only about 200 were still unable to return.
In Turkey, firefighters in the northwestern 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.
Yumakli said the fire, which had forced the evacuation of 11 villages, had affected 40 square kilometres including 14 square kilometres of agricultural land.
A firefighting volunteer who was injured and six other people who suffered from smoke inhalation were being kept under observation in hospitals, Yumakli said.
“We are extremely happy that there was no loss of life,” 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.
Yumakli said another fire in central Turkey has also been brought under control and there were no other active wildfires in the country 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.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.
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