Thousands flee as fire devours forests, homes on Greece’s second largest island

Click to play video: 'Wildfires force thousands of evacuations on Greece’s 2nd largest island' Wildfires force thousands of evacuations on Greece’s 2nd largest island
WATCH: Wildfires force thousands of evacuations on Greece's 2nd largest island – Aug 8, 2021

Pillars of billowing smoke and ash turned the sky orange and blocked out the sun above Greece’s second-largest island Sunday as a days-old wildfire devoured pristine forests and encroached on villages, triggering more evacuation alerts.

The fire on Evia, an island of forested mountains and canyons laced with small coves of crystalline water, began Aug. 3 and cut across the popular summer destination from coast to coast as it burned out of control. Scores of homes and businesses have been destroyed and thousands of residents and tourists have fled, many escaping the flames via flotillas that even operated in the dark of night.

The blaze is the most severe of dozens that broke out in the wake of Greece’s most protracted heat wave in three decades, which sent temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) for days, creating bone-dry conditions.

“It’s already too late, the area has been destroyed,” Giannis Kontzias, mayor of the northern Evia municipality of Istiaia, lamented on Greece’s Open TV. He was one of several local officials and residents who took to Greek TV networks to appeal for more firefighting help, particularly from water-dropping planes and helicopters.

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Residents of nearby villages had been urged to head to Istiaia, a town of 7,000 that firefighters battled to save overnight.

In dramatic scenes Sunday afternoon, fast-moving flames encroached on the seaside village of Pefki on the island’s northern coast, burning trees on the fringes and entering the houses’ yards. At least one house was on fire. Panicked residents raced with water tanks, hoses and branches in a seemingly futile effort to extinguish the flames.

Acrid, choking smoke hung in the orange-grey air, turning the day into an apocalyptic twilight as people headed towards Pefki’s pebble beach, dragging suitcases, clutching pets and helping elderly relatives.

Around 350 people had boarded the ferry even before the flames reached the village, the coast guard said, while 23 others were rescued from other beaches in northern Evia. A ferry, coast guard patrol boats, navy vessels and other boats were on standby to evacuate residents.

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Evacuation orders were issued Sunday for four villages in northern Evia, including Pefki, but many residents refused to leave, hoping to save their properties.

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In nearby Gouves, towering flames leaped from the treetops, devouring the pine forest leading to the village. Some residents remained in the picturesque mountain village, dousing homes with water from garden hoses in a last-ditch effort to save them. Others used bulldozers to raze trees and bushes, hoping to create rudimentary firebreaks.

Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said the Evia fire was burning on two fronts, one to the north and one to the south. He said the conditions there were particularly tough for the water-dropping planes and helicopters, whose pilots faced “great danger” with limited visibility and air turbulence.

“We have before us one more difficult afternoon, one more difficult night,” Hardalias said. “All the forces that have been fighting a difficult battle all these days will continue operating with unabated intensity, with the same self-sacrifice.”

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But many have decried government efforts, citing what they saw as a lack of firefighting forces or planes or delays in their arrival.

“The atmosphere was suffocating, although I was away from the fire. There was ash and smoke everywhere,” said Christina Tsatou, who had been in the seaside village of Agios Georgios. “It is very sad that they did not send help in the first days and they left the island burning. It was unfair and many people have lost their property, their livelihoods.”

The wildfires have stretched Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, and the government has appealed for help from abroad. More than 20 countries in Europe and the Mideast have responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and manpower.

Overnight, the Greek coast guard and ferries evacuated 83 people from beaches in northern Evia, following a seaside evacuation of more than 1,000 people on Friday night as flames raged across the hills behind them.

The fire department said Sunday 575 firefighters, 35 ground teams and 89 vehicles were battling the Evia wildfire, including 112 Romanian and 100 Ukrainian firefighters. Four helicopters and three planes provided air support.

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Three more major fires were also burning Sunday in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region, while another broke out Sunday afternoon on the southern island of Crete.

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Another massive fire that ravaged forests, homes and businesses on the northern fringes of the Greek capital appeared to be on the wane. That blaze burnt through large tracts of a national park on Mount Parnitha, the largest forested area remaining near Athens.

Firefighters were worried that the Mount Parnitha fire would rekindle, so they and the military had been patroling all night, Hardalias said. One firefighter was transferred to a hospital Sunday after passing out during a patrol.

On Friday, a volunteer firefighter died after suffering head injuries from a falling electric pole north of Athens, while at least 20 people have been treated for fire-related injuries, including two firefighters hospitalized in intensive care.

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The causes of the fires are under investigation. Three people were arrested Friday on suspicion of starting blazes, in two cases intentionally. A 47-year-old Greek was arrested Saturday in an Athens suburb for lighting two fires in a grove and setting four dumpsters on fire. Police said Sunday that two more people had been arrested on suspicion of attempted arson: a 71-year-old Greek in southern Greece and a foreigner in an Athens park.

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Greek and European officials have also blamed climate change for the large number of fires in southern Europe this summer, from Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

Massive fires also have been burning across Siberia in northern Russia for weeks, forcing the evacuation Saturday of a dozen villages. In all, wildfires have burned nearly 15 million acres this year in Russia.

In the U.S., hot, dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California.

–Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece.

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