Blazes on more than 50 fronts test firefighters


Firefighters have been out in force since the early hours of Friday, battling blazes on more than 50 fronts, mainly on Athens’s Mount Hymettus and on the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese, where brush fires stoked by strong winds expanded to unmanageable proportions and prompted the evacuation of dozens of buildings.

In Athens, residents of the eastern suburb of Ilioupoli said they heard four explosions before the mountain’s western slope was engulfed in flames that razed one house and a taverna in Kareas, scorched several apartment buildings in surrounding suburbs and prompted the evacuation of a monastery, a hospital and a children’s charity hostel. Luck was on the firefighters’ side, however, as a change in the wind direction pushed the flames further up the mountainside, sparing residential areas from further risk.

In Laconia in the southeastern Peloponnese, residents were not as fortunate. The first blaze there broke out at around 3.30 a.m., spreading fast on gale-force winds and engulfing vast tracts of underbrush before reaching the region’s villages. In Aghios Nikolaos, some 200 residents who sought shelter at a nearby beach had to be rescued by sea when the flames swept down to the coast, and in Neapoli, a popular summer resort town, patients from the local health center had to be transferred to a retirement home and numerous homes were reported as having suffered extensive damage.

Late on Friday, the general secretary of coordination at the Ministry of Interior, Tzanetos Filippakos, told Kathimerini that the blaze had encroached on Neapoli proper and was no longer restricted to its outskirts, but said he was optimistic it would be brought under control as winds abated overnight. The Byzantine fortress town of Monemvasia, 38 km from Neapoli, was also under threat from fire on Friday night.

Meanwhile, speaking from the Defense Ministry on Friday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged residents in the fire-stricken areas to abide by authorities’ orders.

“Everyone needs to remain calm,” he said. “Of course, help from volunteers is needed, but only where it is indicated and allowed by the fire service, which controls operations.”

His comments were directed at hundreds of residents on Hymettus who tried to battle the flames coming near their homes using garden hoses, buckets of water and even household fire extinguishers. Their presence, however, impeded the work of water-dumping aircraft trying to hit the site of the blaze.

Water-dropping airplanes were also challenged by the strong winds, with one Canadair having to make an emergency landing onto trees in a forest near the village of Faraklo in Laconia due to engine problems. Both pilots were reported to be in good health.

The Greek government has applied for assistance through the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism, while the air force and the army have also been mobilized.

Authorities said an investigation will be conducted into whether the blaze on Hymettus, which has been burnt by wildfires a number of times, was caused by arson.