EU sends help to burning Balkans after huge fire near Athens

EU sends help to burning Balkans after huge fire near Athens

The European Union promised assistance Wednesday to Greece and other countries in southeast Europe grappling with huge wildfires after a blaze gutted or damaged more than 100 homes and businesses near Athens.

Fire crews in Greece raced to contain the wildfire on the outskirts of the capital that forced thousands to flee, and threatened a former royal palace.

Greece is enduring its worst heat wave in decades, with temperatures in parts of the country expected to reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Neighboring countries are facing similar conditions.

A European Union disaster response mechanism said assistance, including firefighters and water-dropping planes, were being sent from other EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from fires were clearly visible in satellite images of the region. It said satellite data also showed that the intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

The Fire Service took advantage of cooler morning hours to send low-flying helicopters and planes to dump water on charred forest land around Tatoi, 20 kilometers (12 1/2 miles) north of Athens, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze. At least 80 cars were burned.

“The ground crews did vital work, [fighting] nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control center in the area. “We had no loss of human life. … Homes will be rebuilt, and over time the forest will grow back.”

Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to douse the flames, and water-dropping buckets were attached to helicopters provided by the military. Authorities said more than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and more than 500 people had spent the night in hotels used as shelters.

Extreme weather also has fueled deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy, and across the Mediterranean region. Government officials in Albania said one person had died of smoke inhalation outside the southern city of Gjirokaster, where wildfires forced evacuations.

The fire outside Athens sent clouds of smoke over the Greek capital, obscuring visibility and prompting health authorities to issue warnings to people with breathing difficulties to remain indoors. The grounds of a summer palace once owned by Greece’s former royal family were damaged, but none of the buildings.

Sporadic power outages were reported in areas of the city near the fire, after the flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding strain to the overloaded national grid.

Evacuations continued Wednesday on the island of Evia, while a fire threatened homes, and wildfires were also ongoing in the southern Peloponnese region.

Authorities said 81 wildfires had been reported around the country in 24 hours from late Monday to late Tuesday.

“It was another exceptionally difficult night,” Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said said while visiting a fire department mobile coordination center in the area of the fire in the Varybobi and Tatoi suburbs of the Greek capital. He said fire fighters had succeeded in reducing four active fire fronts to one overnight.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” he said.

The leafy suburbs of Varybobi and Tatoi lie at the foot of Mount Parnitha, next to large forests of mainly pine trees. The fire, which began on Tuesday afternoon inside the forest, quickly raced through the flammable pine and reached the main square of Varybobi.

Some nearby residents took to social media to offer shelter for animals affected by the fire.

The heat wave is forecast to continue in Greece until the end of the week. Emergency measures remain in place all week, including changes to working hours and services, and heightened fire monitoring. [AP]

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