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Greek wildfires: Major blaze on the wane, but not controlled

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A firefighter tries to extinguish the fire in a house during a wildfire in Thea area some 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of Athens, Greece, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. A major wildfire northwest of the Greek capital devoured large tracts of pine forest for a third day and threatened a large village as hundreds of firefighters, assisted by water-dropping planes and helicopters, battled the flames Wednesday. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS – A major wildfire that has ravaged a pine forest for four days, burnt homes and led to the evacuation of villages northwest of Athens is on the wane, but not yet under control, Greece's minister in charge of public order said Thursday.

Hundreds of Greek and Polish firefighters, backed by more than two dozen helicopters and planes, have been battling the fire near the village of Vilia, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Greek capital.

Citizens' Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said the “greatest part” of the fire had been contained, but the blaze was still not under control.

Firefighters had been facing particularly tough conditions, including lack of access roads into the dense forest, high temperatures, dry conditions and constantly changing winds, he said.

Across the country, the fire department said 55 new forest fires had broken out in the 24 hours between Wednesday evening and Thursday evening, with most tackled in their early stages.

Reinforcements were sent to Vilia, with 22 helicopters, including two from Russia and one from the United Arab Emirates, and 11 planes providing air support to 451 firefighters and 166 vehicles.

The ground forces include 143 Polish firefighters sent as assistance to Greece, which has been battling hundreds of wildfires across the country this month. The Polish firefighters would remain in the country for another two weeks, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Twitter.

Chrisochoidis said Greece had accepted an offer of help from Romania, which would be sending firefighters and vehicles. He did not specify when they would be arriving. More than 100 Romanian firefighters were deployed earlier this month to a massive fire on the island of Evia which burned for more than a week.

The Vilia blaze burned several houses and summer homes in and near the nearby village of Thea, including the home of local resident Nikolaos Loanas.

“This house that burned to the ground is mine. I’ve had it for about 40 to 45 years and it was built through hardship, with a lot of effort, sweat and stress,” he said. “It was 45 years' worth of memories. .... My wife and I moved here when we were young, my two children grew up here, played here, had fun here, my three granddaughters liked it here.”

Greece's wildfires come in the wake of a heat wave — the country’s most severe in about three decades — that left shrubland and forests parched. The causes of the fires have not been officially established, although more than a dozen people have been arrested on suspicion of arson.

The blazes have stretched the country’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, leading the government to appeal for international help, including through a European Union emergency response system. About 24 European and Middle Eastern countries responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and hundreds of firefighters. Most have since returned home.

“The situation we are facing is unprecedented for the country,” government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said during a press briefing. “The fight we are waging on this front is threefold: extinguishing the fires, preventing new outbreaks, and repairing damage and compensating those affected.”

Chrisochoidis said the army, police and fire department were patrolling forests around the clock “to prevent any threat and immediately deal with any incident.”

Intense heat and wildfires have also struck other Mediterranean countries. Firefighters in France worked to contain a forest fire along the French Riviera on Tuesday, and recent wildfires have killed at least 75 people in Algeria and 16 in Turkey. Worsening drought and heat have also fueled wildfires in the western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region.

Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving more extreme events.

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Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece.

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