Evacuations, despair as fires ravage Greek island

By: AFP      Published: 10:20 PM, 8 Aug, 2021
Evacuations, despair as fires ravage Greek island

Firefighters and desperate locals Sunday battled raging wildfires on the island of Evia that have charred vast areas of pine forest and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes.

"We have ahead of us another difficult evening, another difficult night," civil protection deputy minister Nikos Hardalias said. 

"On Evia we have two major fire fronts, one in the north and one in the south," Hardalias said, adding that strong winds were pushing the northern fire front towards beach villages.

Greece and Turkey have been battling devastating fires for nearly two weeks as the region suffered its worst heatwave in decades, which experts have linked to climate change.

So far, the fires have killed two people in Greece and eight in neighbouring Turkey, with dozens more hospitalised.

While rain brought some respite from the blazes in Turkey over the weekend, Greece continues to endure soaring temperatures.

In all, 17 firefighting aircraft -- planes and helicopters -- were fighting the fires on Evia, Greece's second largest island, Hardalias said.

Evia lies just northeast of the capital Athens. To the southwest is the Peloponnese region where Hardalias said the situation was stable. Fires in a northern suburb of Athens have subsided, he added.

"The situation in Attica (which encompasses Athens) is better but we are afraid of the danger of flare-ups," Hardalias said.

Rescuers on Sunday dispatched a helicopter to airlift an injured firefighter from the densely forested Mount Parnitha just north of Athens.

Late Sunday, a Pezetel firefighting aircraft crashed at Zakynthos island in western Greece. The pilot is safe and sound, the ANA news agency reported.

The rugged landscape and dense pine forests on Evia that so appeal to tourists are a nightmare for firefighters. The inferno has destroyed homes and reduced thousands of hectares of land to ash.

Authorities have continued to evacuate residents from Evia, with another 349 people taken to safety early Sunday, the Greek coastguard said. 

At the beach of Pefki village, young people struggled across the sand, using chairs to carry mainly elderly and handicapped people on to a ferry.

Some 260 Greek firefighters with 66 vehicles were battling the blazes on Evia, helped by 200 more from Ukraine and Romania with 23 vehicles and air support.

The heat from the fires on Evia and elsewhere was so intense that "the water from the hoses and the water-dropping aircraft was evaporating" before reaching the blazes, one fire service official told the Eleftheros Typos newspaper.

Local officials were critical of the efforts to control the fires, which erupted on the island on Tuesday.

"I have no more voice left to ask for more aircraft. I can't stand this situation," Giorgos Tsapourniotis, mayor of the Evia town of Mantoudi, told Skai TV on Saturday.

Many villages were saved only because young people ignored evacuation orders and stayed on to keep the fires away from their homes, he added.

"We are in the hands of God," said 26-year-old villager Yannis Selimis from Gouves on the north of the island

"The state is absent. If people leave, the villages will burn for sure," he told AFP.

"For the next 40 years we will have no job and in the winter we are going to drown from the floods without the forests that were protecting us," he added.

Addressing the criticism Sunday, Hardalias said that smoke carried by the wind had hampered visibility for firefighting aircraft.

But Alexis Tsipras, leader of the main opposition Syriza party, slammed the government response.

"Northern Evia is burning for the sixth consecutive day. Local administration & residents are shouting that they are desperately alone, there aren't adequate forces on land or by air & the only care taken is for evacuations."