European firefighters and planes join battle against wildfires that have left 20 dead in Greece

European firefighters and planes join battle against wildfires that have left 20 dead in Greece

Water-dropping planes from several European countries joined hundreds of firefighters Wednesday battling wildfires raging for days across Greece that left 20 people dead, while major blazes also burned in Spain’s Tenerife and in northwestern Turkey near the Greek border.

Greece’s largest active forest fire was burning out of control for the fifth day near the city of Alexandroupoli in the country’s northeast, while authorities were trying to prevent a blaze on the northwestern fringe of Athens from scorching homes and reaching the Parnitha national park, one of the last green areas near the Greek capital.

Over the last three days, 209 wildfires have broken out across Greece, fire department spokesman, Ioannis Artopios, said Wednesday morning. The blazes, fanned by gale-force winds and hot, dry summer conditions, have led authorities to order the evacuations of dozens of villages and the main hospital in Alexandroupoli.

Although gale-force winds were gradually abating in many parts of the country, the risk of new fires remained high.

“Conditions remain difficult and in many cases extreme,” Artopios said.

Firefighters searching recently burnt areas in the Alexandroupoli region discovered the bodies of 18 people believed to be migrants in a forest Tuesday. Another two people were found dead on Monday, one in northern Greece and another in a separate fire in central Greece.

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece called for assistance from other European countries. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent water-dropping aircraft, while Romania and the Czech Republic sent dozens of firefighters and water tanks.

Evacuations were ordered for several areas on the northwestern fringe of the Greek capital as a wildfire that started Tuesday raced up a mountain towards the Parnitha national park, threatened a military base in the area and reached homes in the foothills.

More than 200 firefighters backed by volunteers, military and police forces, eight helicopters and seven planes, including two from Germany and two from Sweden, were battling the blaze.

The fire in Alexandroupoli, a region near Greece’s eastern border with Turkey, continued to burn out of control, with dozens of Romanian firefighters joining the battle against the flames, backed by eight helicopters and five planes, including two from Cyprus.

Across the border in Turkey’s Canakkale province, strong winds were fanning a wildfire burning for a second day.

Authorities evacuated an elderly care home and more than 1,250 people from nine villages and closed down a highway as a precaution. More than 80 people were treated in hospitals for the effects of smoke.

Ibrahim Yumakli, Turkey’s forestry minister, said firefighting teams backed by more than two dozen fire-dousing planes and helicopters had largely blocked the blaze from spreading beyond the 1,500 hectares (15 square kilometers) it has affected so far.

Authorities also suspended maritime traffic through the narrow Dardanelles Strait linking the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which the water-dropping aircraft were using to refill, the minister said.

Sporadic fires were also being reported in Italy, which has been engulfed in a heatwave expected to extend into the weekend with temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) in many cities. Forty firefighters and three aircraft were battling a brush fire that broke out early Wednesday on the outskirts of the Ligurian seaside town of Sanremo, a popular summer destination. No injuries or property damage were reported.

With their hot, dry summers, southern European countries are particularly prone to wildfires.

European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.

A major fire has been burning for more than a week on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, scorching 150 square kilometers (nearly 58 square miles), including an estimated third of the island’s woodlands. [AP]

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