© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A man is seen in silhouette as he burns wildfire in the village of Lasdikas near ancient Olympia, Greece on Aug 5, 2021. REUTERS / Giorgos Moutafis
By Lefteris Papadimas and Costas Baltas
ATHENS (Reuters) – Thousands of people fled their homes on the outskirts of Athens on Friday as emergency services tried to prevent forest fires from spreading to other cities as searing winds fueled fires in Greece on day four.
Like elsewhere in Europe, Greece is grappling with extreme weather conditions this summer, and a week-long heat wave – the worst in 30 years – has ignited forest fires, burned houses and killed animals all at once in many parts of the country, while flames ripped thousands of acres from the land.
On Friday there were 56 active fronts across Greece, from the Peloponnese to Evia Island near the capital, where hundreds of people had to be evacuated by boat as flames burned through woodland to the coast.
“We are continuing our efforts, hour by hour, to tackle multiple fires today,” said Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias as authorities ordered the evacuation of further suburbs north of Athens, where wildfires at the foot of Mount Parnitha came back to life late on Thursday.
“The conditions are extremely dangerous,” he said.
The fire, which first broke out on Tuesday, burned around the highway connecting the capital with northern Greece and hundreds of firefighters with depth charges were engaged in a “titanic effort” to keep the flames from sweeping the nearby town of Marathon, Hardalias, reached said.
“We may have to spend the night in the car if we can’t find a friend to take us in,” said Yorgos, 26, who had to leave his home in the suburb of Polydendri.
In neighboring Turkey, authorities are fighting the country’s worst forest fires ever, and flames sweeping the southwestern coastal regions are forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate. In Italy, hot winds kindled the flames on the island of Sicily this week.
Athenians were urged to stay inside again to avoid toxic fumes as the fire, fueled by winds and explosions on power lines, sent a cloud of smoke over the capital.
Temperatures were over 40 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) all week and no easing was expected on Friday as stormy winds were expected to spread the flames further.
The Athens power grid operator announced staggered blackouts in the surrounding region to ensure there were no major outages in mainland Greece.
On Evia, coast guard ships with the support of tourist boats have picked up 631 people from three beaches on the island since late Thursday, where the flames have burned through a huge pine forest and reached the sea since Tuesday.
The island’s deputy governor George Kelaiditis called it “the greatest Evia disaster in 50 years” with hundreds of damaged homes and thousands of acres of woodland burned.
In the Peloponnese, where firefighters saved Ancient Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games, from a raging fire this week, the flames left scorched earth and dead animals.
“A disaster,” said farmer Marinos Anastopoulos. “The fire came around noon with swirling winds and houses were burned down, lots of animals burned. Rabbits, sheep, dogs, everything.”
Along with firefighters from countries like France, Cyprus and Sweden, Israel said it was sending a team of 16 firefighters to Greece.