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 decimated vast tracts of pristine forest, 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, turning the sky orange as the blaze rampaged across the northern part of the island.
The fire, which began Aug. 3, is the most severe of dozens that have broken out across Greece in the past week, after the country was baked by its worst heat wave in three decades which sent temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) for days. The heat, coming during a particularly hot summer, has turned Greece’s forests, including large areas of easily flammable pine trees, into bone-dry tinderboxes.
Other big fires have been burning forests and farmland in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese, while a major blaze that encroached into the northern suburbs of Athens and Mount Parnitha national park on the fringes of the capital was on the wane. Firefighting efforts continued in Parnitha, where French, Israeli and Cypriot firefighters were helping their Greek colleagues.
The wildfires have stretched Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, and the government has appealed for help from abroad. More than 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East have responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and manpower.
Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, tweeted Monday he had spoken to his Russian counterpart and asked whether Russia could send a second Beriev Be-200 firefighting plane to Greece. So far Greece has leased one such aircraft, the largest operating in the Greek fires.
Despite the help, many residents and local officials have complained of a lack of firefighters, and some have taken to calling in to Greek television networks to appeal for help, particularly from water-dropping planes and helicopters.
“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 harbor of Arkitsa.
“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.
Greek authorities, scarred by a deadly wildfire in 2018 near Athens that killed more than 100 people, have emphasized saving lives in their firefighting efforts, sending dozens of evacuation orders for inhabited areas and organizing flotillas of coast guard and navy vessels, ferries and other boats to evacuate people from coastal areas when necessary. The coast guard said a total of 2,770 people had been evacuated by sea from fires across the country between July 31 and Aug. 8.
Some of those who died in the 2018 fire in Mati drowned trying to escape by sea after they became trapped on the beach.
But some people, including local officials in affected areas, have argued the evacuation orders have come too soon, saying residents could provide valuable help to stretched firefighting resources in saving villages.
On Monday, the flames continued across northern Evia, threatening yet more villages. Satellite imagery from the European Union’s Earth Observation Program showed vast tracts of the island charred, with the fire having cut across it from coast to coast.
Greece’s Civil Protection chief, Nikos Hardalias, has stressed firefighters have been doing everything they can. Firefighters from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia have been sent to Evia, where more than 600 firefighters are operating, along with five helicopters and five water-dropping planes, the fire department said Monday.
One volunteer firefighter died last week after being hit by a falling electricity pole at the site of the fire north of Athens, while four more were hospitalized in the Greek capital, two of them in critical condition with extensive burns.
Massive fires have also raged for 13 days in neighboring Turkey, where firefighters were still trying to extinguish blazes in two locations in the southwestern coastal province of Mugla.
“The situation is improving,” Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said Sunday. “It is too soon to say the fires are under control, but we are reaching that point.”
Wildfires were also burning in southern Italy, North Macedonia and Montenegro, where a large fire in the Malo Brdo district of the capital Podgorica came close to houses.
In North Macedonia, dozens of wildfires have followed a heat wave that saw the highest temperatures recorded in decades. At least eight fires were still burning Monday, mostly in remote areas where only helicopters and planes could be used to fight them. Thousands of hectares of pine, beech and oak forests have been decimated. Five men have been arrested on suspicion of arson.