ATHENS – Wildfires raged uncontrolled through Greece and Turkey for yet another day Friday, forcing thousands to flee by land and sea, and killing a volunteer firefighter on the fringes of Athens in a huge forest blaze that threatened the Greek capital's most important national park.
Eight people have died in Turkey's blazes, described as the worst in decades, that swept through swaths of the southern coast for the past 10 days.
In Greece, which had suffered a record heat wave, Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said firefighters faced “exceptionally dangerous, unprecedented conditions” as they battled 154 wildfires Friday, with 64 still burning into the night.
“Over the past few days we have been facing a situation without precedent in our country, in the intensity and wide distribution of the wildfires, and the new outbreaks all over (Greece),” he said in an evening briefing. “I want to assure you that all forces available are taking part in the fight.”
Evacuation orders were issued for dozens of villages on the mainland and the nearby island of Evia, as well as outlying settlements on the forested fringes of Athens. Scores of homes and businesses have been destroyed or damaged, although authorities have been unable yet to provide detailed figures.
Shifting winds and new flashpoints Friday afternoon caused the blazes outside Athens and Evia to repeatedly change direction, in some cases returning to threaten areas that had narrowly escaped destruction earlier this week.
After burning through forests and houses towards Lake Marathon, the capital’s main water reservoir, a branch of the fire headed off into the Mount Parnitha national park — one of the last remaining substantial forests near Athens, which already bore deep scars from wildfires in 2007.
A 38-year-old volunteer firefighter died after a falling utility pole struck his head in an area north of Athens affected by the fire, officials said. At least 20 people have required treatment nationwide.
The causes of the fires are under investigation. Hardalias said three people were arrested Friday — in the greater Athens area, central and southern Greece — on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally. Police said the suspect detained north of Athens had allegedly lit fires at three separate spots in the area ravaged by the large blaze, which first broke out Tuesday.
In the village of Limni on Evia, residents and vacationers were urged to hasten to the harbor and await embarkation after flames cut off all other means of escape. Two ferry boats picked up about 1,000 people, and one more would remain at Limni to take on later arrivals, the coast guard said.
Earlier in the day and late Thursday the coast guard evacuated nearly 700 people from other parts of the island, using patrol vessels, fishing boats and other private vessels.
“We're talking about the apocalypse, I don't know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coast guard in the town of Aidipsos on Evia, told state broadcaster ERT, describing the earlier sea evacuation.
A coast guard vessel also rescued 10 people trapped on a beach by another fire near the town of Gythio in the southern Peloponnese region.
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou expressed deep gratitude to all involved in the firefighting effort during a visit to the Fire Service headquarters Friday. She added: “We are all vulnerable to fire. There is much that needs to be done, both on a large and a small scale. But now we must display self-restraint and unity.”
Greek and European officials have blamed climate change for the multiple fires burning through southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.
In Italy, firefighters battling a wildfire in the province of Reggio Calabria found the bodies of a man and a woman in an olive grove. LaPresse news agency said they died of smoke inhalation.
Greece has been baked by its most protracted heat wave in three decades, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), although it was cooler Friday.
At least 20 people have been treated for injuries from the fires. Two firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while another two were hospitalized with light burns.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 aircraft are now battling major fires across Greece, while extra firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles were arriving from France, Switzerland, Romania, Cyprus, Croatia, Israel, Sweden and the U.S. Some 80 French and 40 Cypriot firefighters joined in efforts to fight the blazes north of Athens.
In Turkey, authorities on Friday evacuated six more neighborhoods near the Mugla province town of Milas as a wildfire fanned by winds burned some 5 kilometers (3 miles) from a power plant. Two other neighborhoods were also evacuated as a precaution later in the day, as another fire spread from the region of Yatagan, in Mugla, toward the edge of the neighboring province of Aydin, further north.
At least 36,000 people were evacuated to safety in Mugla province alone, officials said.
Excavators formed firebreaks to keep flames from the Yenikoy power plant, the second such facility to be threatened in the region.
Wildfires near the tourism resort of Marmaris, also in Mugla, were largely contained by late Thursday, while by Friday afternoon the two main fires in neighboring Antalya province were brought under control.
In Greece, the Athens fire halted traffic on the main highway connecting the capital to the north of the country and damaged electricity installations. The power distribution company announced rolling cuts in the wider capital region to protect the electrical grid.
In the Drosopigi area, resident Giorgos Hatzispiros surveyed the damage to his house Friday morning, the first time he was seeing it after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single-story home remained, along with his children's bicycles, somehow unscathed in a storeroom. Inside, smoke rose from a still-smoldering bookcase.
“Nothing is left,” Hatzispiros said.
In the southern Peloponnese region dozens of villages and settlements were evacuated, and a blaze was stopped before reaching monuments at Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.
The fires also disrupted COVID-19 vaccinations. The Health Ministry announced the suspension of vaccinations at centers in fire-affected areas.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday that the wildfires display “the reality of climate change.”
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey, and Paphitis from Lemnos, Greece. Elena Becatoros in Argostoli, Greece, Mehmet Guzel in Mugla, Turkey, and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.
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