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Greek firefighters battle major blazes on multiple fronts for fifth day

By AFP - Aug 24,2023 - Last updated at Aug 24,2023

People look at the wildfire raging in a forest in Sikorahi, near Alexandroupoli, northern Greece, on Wednesday (AFP photo)

ATHENS — Greek firefighters on Wednesday struggled to contain uncontrolled fires throughout the country for a fifth day, several of them bordering an acrid, smoke-filled Athens.

In the last two days, 19 people believed to be migrants, including two children, have been killed in forest blazes.

Hundreds of firefighters were battling on two major fronts, one near Athens and the other in northeastern Greece, in addition to several other smaller fires.

One fire fanned by strong winds ripped through the foothills of Mount Parnitha, the largest forest adjoining the capital, burning near the outskirts of a national park.

"The situation in Parnitha is extremely critical," Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias told a news conference.

The European Commission said 246 firefighters, 40 vehicles and eight aircraft from eight member states had been sent to help.

Evacuations were ordered on Wednesday morning for several settlements on the outskirts of the capital, including three nursing homes.

The blaze damaged homes in the northwestern Athens district of Menidi, and briefly threatened an army camp.

"Many people don't want to leave their homes," Nikos Kountromichalis, a Hellenic Red Cross organiser, told state TV ERT in Menidi.


'Fainted in their yards' 


"We found some elderly people who had fainted in their own yards," he said, adding that his team had treated several residents for burns and respiratory problems.

Fires have already destroyed homes and properties in the nearby suburbs of Hasia and Fyli.

A migrant detention centre in Amygdaleza, north of Athens, was also evacuated.

Another fire in Boeotia, north of Athens, came perilously close to a UNESCO-listed Byzantine monastery.

Greek firefighters have battled over 350 fires over the last five days, including over 200 in the last 48 hours, Kikilias said.

Nearly a hundred were currently unchecked, the fire service said.

Fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios said 140 people had been arrested on suspicion of arson, most of it accidental.

Most cases were related to welding and agricultural work that ignored high-risk weather warnings.

“It’s an unprecedented situation, this is not a figure of speech,” he said.

Kikilias said the country was going through the worst summer of fires since fire-risk maps were introduced in 2009.

He noted that the number of fire emergency warnings issued this year were “twice as many as in 2021, four times those of 2019 and seven times those of 2012”.

In 32 years of service “I’ve never seen such extreme conditions,” Greek fire department chief Yiorgos Pournaras told reporters, noting that even during the night winds remained high.

The Parnitha fire had spread even though water bombers were on-site in minutes, Pournaras said.


Athens district evacuated 


The Greek capital woke up on Wednesday to the smell of scorched earth and thick black smoke covering the sky.

“Unfortunately, the wind does not help at all,” Stathis Topalidis, deputy mayor of Menidi, told state TV ERT.

On Tuesday, authorities ordered the evacuation of Ano Liosia in northwest Athens — a district of over 25,000 people — although several stayed at their houses to try and protect their properties.

Flames continued to spread unchecked for a fifth day in the northeastern region of Evros, close to the Turkish border in Alexandroupolis and the Dadia forest, and home to rare birds of prey.

More evacuations were ordered in the region overnight.


 Online rumours 


Unfounded rumours and allegations have also been spreading rapidly on social media blaming migrants for responsibility for the outbreak of the fires.

Greece’s supreme court prosecutor on Wednesday ordered local officials to investigate both the causes of the catastrophic fire and alleged claims of racism towards migrants.

Greek authorities on Tuesday arrested three people in northern Greece who had forced undocumented migrants into a cargo trailer, accusing them of being responsible for the fires.

Twenty people have been killed in this week’s wildfire wave.

Eighteen people including two children were found dead on Tuesday in a forest fire near the Turkish border, north of Alexandroupolis.

As no local residents had been reported missing “the possibility that they are people who entered our country illegally is under investigation”, fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios said in a televised address.

Another person believed to be a migrant was found dead in a nearby forest on Monday. An elderly shepherd had been found earlier Monday in central Greece.

Over 40,000 hectares were destroyed in wildfires in just three days from August 19 to 21, according to a report by the National Observatory of Athens.

The very hot and dry conditions which increase the fire risk will persist until Friday, according to meteorologists.


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