© Reuters. A firefighter sprays water to help fight wildfire in the suburb of Varympompi, north of Athens, Greece, on Aug. 4, 2021. REUTERS / Costas Baltas
By Lefteris Papadimas and Giorgos Moutafis
ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek authorities on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of villages near the site of the ancient Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese as forest fires raged across the country, destroying forests and buildings and displacing hundreds.
Temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and strong winds have sparked more than 150 forest fires in various areas of the country in the past few days, intensifying the fires in Turkey and other areas of the Mediterranean.
“We are still fighting a gigantic battle on many fronts,” said Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias during a briefing, “the next few days will be more difficult.”
Near the archaeological site in the Western Peloponnese region where the ancient Olympic Games were held, a dozen villages were evacuated and around 160 firefighters fought with depth charges to save the ancient treasures.
“We are doing our best to save this holy place,” said local mayor Panagiotis Antonakopoulos to Open TV. “After human lives, our priority is to save our history.”
The place where the Olympic flame begins its journey to the city of the modern Olympic Games is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Greece. It was threatened by an earlier fire in 2007.
Across the country, lifeboats were picking up about 85 people from the beach off Evia Island, near Athens, when wildfire engulfed the surrounding pine forests and filled the sky with thick smoke.
“It burned all night. The forest was destroyed, villages were burned down. We left our houses, we left our pets,” Christina Katsini, a local resident, told Skai TV.
Reinforcements came from Cyprus and firefighters from France and two planes from Sweden were expected by Thursday, a civil defense spokesman said, but the country is prepared for more fighting in the coming days.
Fires that threatened homes on the northern outskirts of Athens on Tuesday have eased slightly. But residents were told to stay inside as a thick cloud of smoke hung over the city, filling the air with noxious particles and the smell of burns.
“I saved my pets, so I stayed,” said Panagiotis, a Varympompi resident who stood between burned cars and blackened pine trees. “I get goosebumps just talking about it. All the houses around me are burned, nothing is left.”
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