NEWS

Thousands flee fires in Greece, Turkey; some rescued by sea

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Thousands of people fled wildfires burning out of control in Greece and Turkey on Friday, including a major blaze just north of the Greek capital of Athens that claimed one life, as a protracted heat wave left forests tinder-dry and flames threatened populated areas and electricity installations.

Turkey’s wildfires, described as the worst in decades, have swept through swaths of the southern coast for the past 10 days, killing eight people.

In Greece, firefighters were battling 56 active wildfires, Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said. Multiple evacuation orders were issued for dozens of villages on the mainland and the nearby island of Evia, as well as outlying settlements on the fringes of Athens where the fire burned forests and houses, heading for Lake Marathon, the capital’s main water reservoir.

Shifting winds 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.

“We continue our effort hour by hour to tackle the multiple fires we face today,” Hardalias said. “Conditions are exceptionally dangerous.”

Athens’ main trauma hospital said a 38-year-old man died after a head injury from a falling utility pole in an area north of Athens affected by the fire.

On Evia, the coast guard mounted a major operation overnight and into Friday to evacuate hundreds of residents and vacationers by sea, using patrol vessels, fishing boats and other private vessels. A new evacuation order by sea was issued late Friday for the village of Limni, initially spared by the blaze, where residents were urged to head for the harbor to embark in a ferry boat.

“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.

The coast guard said 668 people had been taken off beaches in northeast Evia by early Friday afternoon after flames cut off all other means of escape.

A coast guard vessel also rescued another 10 people trapped on a beach by another fire near the town of Gythio in the southern Peloponnese region.

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.

Massive fires have been burning across Siberia in Russia’s north for weeks, while hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.

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, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries. Two of the 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 and Sweden.

The US embassy in Athens said Friday that US Naval Forces Europe is providing a P-8 aerial reconnaissance aircraft to support Greece’s firefighting efforts.

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, firefighters went door to door in areas around 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Athens telling people to evacuate, while helicopters dropped water on towering flames and thick smoke blanketed the area. Authorities sent push alerts to mobile phones in the area urging residents to leave, while a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital was evacuated overnight.

Constant flare-ups threatened inhabited areas.

The fire halted traffic on the main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece 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. He urged his mother to leave, to spare her the sight of their destroyed home.

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.

“Our priority is always the protection of human life, followed by the protection of property, the natural environment and critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, achieving all these aims at the same time is simply impossible,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday night.

The wildfires, he said, 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.

[AP]