HomeScienceGreece Battles Its Most Widespread Wildfires on Record

Greece Battles Its Most Widespread Wildfires on Record


Wildfires ravaged northern Greece for a fifth consecutive day on Wednesday and forced the evacuation of settlements on the outskirts of the capital, Athens. The authorities said they were battling scores of blazes around the country after weeks of searing heat turned many areas into tinderboxes.

“It is the worst summer for fires since records began,” said Vassilis Kikilias, the civil protection minister.

Mr. Kikilias said rescue forces were giving “110 percent” in their efforts to douse multiple blazes around the country, noting that 355 new fires had broken out in the past five days — 209 of them in the last 24 hours.

Forces were responding as quickly as possible but gale force winds were hampering their efforts, he said, describing an “unprecedented situation” after a series of heat waves.

Of the many fires, the fronts in the north and near Athens, where blazes had reached Parnitha National Park, were considered the most dangerous.

On Tuesday, the bodies of 18 people, among them two children, were discovered in a forest in the Evros region near the border with Turkey. Authorities said they believed the dead were migrants who had perished as the fire outran them, but warned that the task of identifying them would be challenging.

In the northern port city of Alexandroupolis, ash rained on empty waterfront tavernas and the thick pall of smoke made breathing hard. Farther inland, past smoldering swaths of forest, locals in villages and farmsteads battled flames with sticks and buckets of water as firefighters deployed water-scooping helicopters and aircraft droned overhead.

Just north of Athens, the authorities ordered the evacuation of the settlement of Agia Pareskevi, near Parnitha National Park, including 50 residents of retirement homes and a monastery. The Amygdaleza migrant camp was also evacuated as a precaution, said Yiannis Artopios, the Greek fire service spokesman.

Homes burned in Agia Paraskevi as well as in Menidi, on the outskirts of Athens, according to the authorities and residents.

Despite upgrades to firefighting forces in recent years, “significant things” need to be done if Greece is to be able to respond to the “extreme situation” that is being stoked by climate change, Mr. Kikilias said, citing devastating wildfires in Maui and Canada as other examples of the global challenge.

Greece regularly battles major wildfires that become deadly. Its hot, dry, windy summers combined with native pine forests and combustible undergrowth create a perfect environment for blazes to grow out of control.

But fire-season preparedness measures, like digging up firebreaks and clearing out dry grasses, are still lacking, and environmental groups say the government has mishandled the fires and underinvested in firefighting equipment and training.

Greece’s Supreme Court prosecutor on Wednesday ordered an investigation into the causes of the fire in Evros, including the possibility that a criminal organization of arsonists was behind the blaze.

It was also investigating the detention of 13 migrants by three men who blamed them for the fires and shoved them into a windowless trailer, while livestreaming their vigilantism on social media.

It was the second time this summer that the country’s firefighting forces were torn among multiple fronts. In July, thousands of tourists were evacuated from Rhodes and Corfu, popular resorts that largely depend on seasonal visitors.

For Athenians, Mount Parnitha provides a respite from heat waves in an ever-warmer city with few green spaces, and the national park plays a key role in cooling the city. Much of the mountain was ravaged in a series of blazes in 2007, when fires also killed scores of people in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region.

On Wednesday, Athenians braced for a difficult day ahead as the air quality deteriorated and the massive flames on the mountain gathered strength.

In Kirki, a small village in Evros, residents who had been evacuated on Monday returned to find destroyed properties. “I grew up in this home,” cried Ioannis Kaltsos, 83, standing next to the carcass of a blackened house with no roof.

“On the way here, I saw what’s left of our forest — it was the most beautiful place,” he said. “My heart broke.”

Nearby in the village of Avra, a farmer with his wife, daughter and a worker tried to fight back growing flames to save their livestock. The firefighters arrived, and a helicopter emptied a massive load of water, but it seemed to make little difference.

“It’s too late,” he said. “The animals are dead.”



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