Fire Rages Anew Near Athens, Evacuations in Southern Greece

By Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros | August 6, 2021

ATHENS, Greece — Wildfires rekindled outside Athens and forced more evacuations around southern Greece Thursday as weather conditions worsened and firefighters in a round-the-clock battle stopped the flames just outside the birthplace of the ancient Olympics.

As additional support arrived from Greece’s military and European Union countries, water-dropping planes and helicopters swooped over blazes near the capital, on the island of Evia and near Ancient Olympia to the south.

“The country is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, with multiple large fires,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after visiting the site where the Olympics were held in antiquity every four years from 776 B.C. for more than a millennium. More than a dozen villages were evacuated in the area.

A heat wave baking southeast Europe for a second week has also triggered deadly fires in Turkey and Albania and blazes across the region.

North Macedonia’s government on Thursday declared the country in a state of crisis for the next 30 days due to wildfires.

The EU Commissioner for the environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, said the fires and extreme weather globally over the summer were a clear signal for the need to address climate change.

“We are fighting some of the worst wildfires we’ve seen in decades. But this summer’s floods, heatwaves and forest fires can become our new normality,” he wrote in a tweet.

“We must ask ourselves: Is this the world we want to live in? We need immediate actions for nature before it’s too late.”

The EU bolstered assistance to fire-stricken countries, sending 40 French firefighters and eight tons of material to help Greece.

Greece’s Civil Protection Agency said the risk of fires across southern Greece would increase further Friday, with windy weather forecast for parts of the country, despite an expected slight dip in temperatures that reached 45 C (113 F) earlier this week. The heat wave was described as Greece’s worst since 1987.

Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos said the armed forces would expand their role in fire prevention, with ground patrols, drones, and aircraft over areas vulnerable to wildfires.

Outside Athens, a forest fire that broke out on the northern fringes of the capital Tuesday and damaged or destroyed scores of homes rekindled, triggering fresh evacuations, threatening homes and sending thick smoke over the capital.

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, adding that the estimated intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

On the island of Evia, a major fire that broke out Tuesday was ravaging forests, leading to the evacuation of villages and a camping site, sending people fleeing in cars and by sea. More than 160 firefighters, three planes and three helicopters, as well as five ground teams and 57 vehicles, were deployed.

The fires have not caused any deaths or serious injuries. But Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month in Greece exceeded 50% of the average area burned in the country in previous years. An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) went up in smoke between Sunday and Wednesday, compared to 10,400 hectares in the whole of last year.

The causes of the Greek wildfires were unclear, but authorities say human error and carelessness are most frequently to blame.

However, arson was suspected in the blaze near ancient Olympia, with officials noting that seven fires broke out in quick succession in the region on Wednesday.

The mayor of the local town of Pyrgos, Panagiotis Antonakopoulos, told Open TV that one person had been spotted moving suspiciously in nearby woodland on a motorbike, stopping every so often and a fire breaking out shortly after his stops. The person, he said, had not yet been arrested.

–Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed.

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