DROSOPIGI, Greece (AP) – Thousands of people fled uncontrollable forest fires in Greece and Turkey on Friday, including a major blaze just north of the Greek capital of Athens that left one dead, while a prolonged heat wave turned forests into powder magazines and flames threatened inhabited areas, electrical installations and historic sites.
Firefighters across Greece were battling 56 active forest fires, civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias said. Multiple evacuation orders have been issued for populated areas on the country’s mainland and neighboring island of Evia, while the blaze near Athens burned forests and homes on its way to from Lake Marathon, the capital’s main water reservoir.
“We are continuing our hour-by-hour efforts to tackle the multiple fires we face today,” said Hardalias. “The conditions are exceptionally dangerous. Strong winds were forecast for Friday afternoon across much of Greece, which could hamper firefighting efforts.
Athens’ main trauma hospital said a 38-year-old man died from a head injury caused by a falling power pole in Ippokrateios Politeia, one of the neighborhoods north of Athens affected by fire. The man was rushed to hospital by ambulance on Friday afternoon without any vital signs, and efforts to resuscitate him for more than an hour were unsuccessful.
In Evia, the Coast Guard staged a major operation to evacuate hundreds of people by sea, using patrol boats, fishing and tourist boats and private vessels to rescue residents and vacationers overnight and up to Friday. Dozens of other villages and neighborhoods were emptied in the southern Peloponnese region and just north of the Greek capital as the fires swept through the pine forests.
“We are talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coastguard for the town of Aidipsos in Evia, told public broadcaster ERT, describing the evacuation by sea. .
The coast guard said 668 people were evacuated from beaches in northeastern Evia early Friday afternoon after the flames cut off all other means of escape. Coastguard ships continued to patrol the coastline.
A huge amphibious aircraft leased from Russia joined the island firefighting effort. The Beriev Be-200 is the largest firefighting aircraft Greece has today.
Greek and European officials have blamed climate change for the multiple fires ravaging parts of southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey. Massive fires have been burning in Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, while hot, dry and gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California, wiping out entire cities in some cases.
Greece suffered its worst heat wave in three decades, with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Thousands of people have fled their homes and vacation homes, while at least 20 people, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries. Two of the firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while two others were hospitalized with minor burns, the health ministry said.
In neighboring Turkey, forest fires described as the worst in decades have swept across swathes of the southern coast in the past 10 days, killing eight people.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 planes are now battling major fires across Greece. Several European countries are sending or have already sent firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles to help, while Israel has also announced that it is sending firefighters.
In Turkey, authorities evacuated six other neighborhoods near the town of Milas in Mugla province on Friday as a windswept forest fire burned about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from a power plant. At least 36,000 people were evacuated to safety in Mugla province alone, officials said.
Meanwhile, several excavators cleared strips of earth to form firewalls in an attempt to prevent flames from reaching the Yenikoy Power Plant, the second such facility to be threatened by forest fires in the region.
The forest fires near the tourist resort of Marmaris, also in Mugla province, were largely contained on Thursday evening, officials said, as at least two fires still burned in Antalya province, another beach vacation destination.
In Greece, firefighters went door to door in areas about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Athens, telling people to evacuate, as helicopters dropped water on towering flames and thick smoke blanketed the area. Authorities have sent push alerts to cell phones in the area, urging residents to leave.
Constant outbreaks threatening populated areas have hampered the work of hundreds of firefighters.
The fire interrupted traffic on the country’s main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece and damaged electrical installations. The electricity distribution company announced gradual cuts in the wider capital region to protect the power grid.
In the Drosopigi area, a resident of Giorgos Hatzispiros examined the damage to his house on Friday morning, the first time he saw it after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single storey house remained, along with her children’s bicycles, somehow unscathed in a storage room. Inside, smoke rose from a still smoking library.
“There is nothing left,” Hatzispiros said. He urged his mother to leave, to spare her the sight of their destroyed house.
In southern Greece, nearly 60 villages and towns were evacuated on Thursday and Friday morning. In addition to Evia, fires were burning in several places in the southern Peloponnese region where a fire was stopped before reaching the monuments of Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.
A summer palace outside of Athens once used by the ancient Greek royal family has also been spared.
The fires also disrupted COVID-19 vaccinations. The health ministry announced the suspension of vaccinations at centers in areas affected by the fires, saying appointments could be postponed when conditions allow.
“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 of these goals at the same time is simply impossible, ”Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday evening.
Forest fires, he said, show “the reality of climate change.”
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a rapid forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of them drowned while trying to escape through the sea of smothering smoke and flames after being trapped on a beach.
Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece, and Fraser from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press journalists Thanassis Stavrakis in Drosopigi, Greece, and Mehmet Guzel in Mugla, Turkey, contributed.