Massive island forest fire in Greece burns for 7th day

Firefighters operate at Ellinika village on Evia island, about 176 kilometers (110 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Photo Courtesy: AP

ATHENS, Greece (AP): Firefighters and residents battled a massive forest fire on Greece’s second-largest island for a seventh day Monday, fighting to save what they can from flames that have ravaged pristine forests, destroyed homes and businesses and sent thousands fleeing.

The smoke and ash from the fire on Evia, a rugged island of forests and coves almost touching the Greek mainland, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange.

The fire, which began Aug. 3, is the most severe of dozens in the past week across Greece. The country has been baked by its worst heat wave in three decades, which sent temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and turned pine forests into bone-dry tinderboxes.

With roads on the island cut off by the flames, residents and tourists fled to Evia’s beaches and jetties to be ferried to safety by a flotilla of ferries and boats organized by the coast guard. Some had harsh words for the country’s firefighting efforts.

“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing!” David Angelou, who had been on Evia in the seaside village of Pefki, said Sunday night after leaving the island by ferry to the mainland.

“You could feel the enormous heat, there was also a lot of smoke. You could see the sun, a red ball, and then, nothing else around,” he said.

Other big wildfires have been burning forests and farmland in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region, but a major blaze that encroached Athens’ northern suburbs and the nearby Mount Parnitha national park was on the wane.

Over the past week, hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed or damaged, and at least 40,000 hectares (nearly 100,000 acres) have been burned. Power cuts on Monday affected at least 17,000 households.

The causes of the blazes are as yet undetermined, though several people have been arrested for alleged arson. Greek media reported Monday the country’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into whether the high number of fires could be linked to intentional criminal activity.

The wildfires have stretched Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit. More than 20 countries in Europe and the Mideast have responded to the country’s call for help, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and manpower.

On Monday, Greece’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that neighboring Turkey — Greece’s historic regional rival — will be sending two firefighting planes. It said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told his Greek counterpart the wildfires that raged for days through Turkey “are now under control.”

The ministry also said Russia would be sending two firefighting planes and two helicopters.

Greek authorities, scarred by a deadly wildfire in 2018 near Athens that killed more than 100 people, have emphasized saving lives, issuing dozens of evacuation orders. The coast guard said 2,770 people had been evacuated by sea across the country between July 31 and Aug. 8.

But some residents and officials say the evacuations came too soon and they could have used the help of locals in saving villages. Some did stay, spraying homes with garden hoses and digging mini fire-breaks.

“The villagers themselves, with the firefighters, are doing what they can to save their own and neighboring villages,” said Yiannis Katsikoyiannis, a volunteer from Crete who came to Evia to help his father save his horse farm near Avgaria.

“If they had evacuated their villages, as the civil protection told them to, everything would have been burnt down – perhaps even two days sooner,” he said. “Of course, they never saw any water-dropping aircraft. And of course now the conditions are wrong for them to fly, due to the smoke.”

On Monday, the flames raced across northern Evia, threatening yet more villages. Firefighters from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia were sent to the beleaguered island, where more than 600 firefighters were operating Monday, along with five helicopters and five water-dropping planes.

One Greek volunteer firefighter died near Athens last week after being hit by a falling electricity pole while four more were hospitalized in the capital, two in critical condition with extensive burns.

Wildfires were also burning in southern Italy, North Macedonia and Montenegro, where a large fire in the Malo Brdo district of the capital Podgorica was coming close to houses on Monday.

In North Macedonia, dozens of wildfires have followed a heatwave that saw the highest temperatures in decades. At least eight fires were still burning Monday, mostly in remote areas where only helicopters and planes could be deployed. Thousands of acres of pine, beech and oak forests have been decimated. Five men have been arrested on suspicion of arson.