Greece wildfires: New blazes burning outside of Athens

More wildfires broke out Monday in hard-hit Greece, with two blazes fanned by strong winds triggering evacuation alerts for villages southeast and northwest of the Greek capital.

The first blaze, which broke out in the morning in the Keratea region southeast of Athens, quickly burned through shrubland and was heading toward a national park in the Sounion area.

Three communities in the area were ordered evacuated. Some residents desperately hosed down their homes, hoping to save them from the approaching flames, while volunteers armed with hoses and branches joined the battle against the blaze. The fire department sent in 91 firefighters, six water-dropping planes and six helicopters.

Dimitris Loukas, the mayor of the Lavreiotiki region which encompasses the area where the fire broke out, told Greek television that arson was suspected as the cause. He said local residents had reported seeing someone in a car setting a dumpster on fire in the area before quickly driving away. Loukas said authorities were looking into the reports.

On the other side of the capital, to the northwest, another blaze broke out in the Vilia area, triggering an evacuation alert for three other villages. Strong winds were predicted to last until at least the evening, potentially hampering the firefighting effort. More than 60 firefighters there were being supported by eight water-dropping planes and five helicopters.

A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop as a wildfire burns in the village of Sinterina, Greece, on Monday. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Greece has been roiled by hundreds of wildfires for about two weeks, with the blazes coming on the heels of the country’s most severe heat wave in decades that left its forests tinder dry.

Tens of thousands of hectares of forest and farmland have been destroyed, homes and businesses have been burned, and thousands of people were evacuated by land and by sea. One volunteer firefighter died, and four have been hospitalized, including two in critical condition in intensive care units.

The fires stretched Greece’s response capabilities to the limit, leading the government to appeal for international help. About 24 European and Middle Eastern countries sent firefighters, helicopters, planes and vehicles. By Monday most had left, although 40 Austrian firefighters remained in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese, where two major fires have been burning for several days.

Several Mediterranean countries have suffered intense heat and quickly spreading wildfires in recent weeks, including Turkey, where at least eight people have died, and Italy. In Algeria, wildfires in the mountainous Berber region have killed at least 69 people.

Worsening drought and heat have also fuelled wildfires this summer in the western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region. Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving more extreme weather events.

Two major fires, which began in early August — one on the island of Evia and one in a national park north of the Greek capital — were still smouldering Monday, with firefighters deployed to secure their perimeters, the fire department said.

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