World

European crews join battle against wildfires that have left 20 dead in Greece

Water-dropping planes from several European countries joined hundreds of firefighters battling wildfires across Greece (Achilleas Chiras/AP)
Water-dropping planes from several European countries joined hundreds of firefighters battling wildfires across Greece (Achilleas Chiras/AP) Water-dropping planes from several European countries joined hundreds of firefighters battling wildfires across Greece (Achilleas Chiras/AP)

Water-dropping planes from several European countries joined hundreds of firefighters on Wednesday to battle wildfires that have been raging for days across Greece and led to the deaths of 20 people.

Major blazes also burned on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands and in north-western Turkey near the Greek border.

Greece’s largest current forest fire was burning out of control for the fifth day near the city of Alexandroupolis in the country’s north-east.

Another major blaze on the north-western fringe of Athens was burning homes and heading towards the Parnitha national park, one of the last green areas near the Greek capital.

Over three days, 209 wildfires have broken out across Greece, fire department spokesman Ioannis Artopios said on Wednesday morning.

Greece Wildfires
Greece Wildfires Firefighters try to control a wildfire next to Agia Paraskevi Christian Orthodox monastery in Acharnes, a suburb of northern Athens (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

The blazes, fanned by gale-force winds and hot, dry summer conditions, led authorities to order the evacuations of dozens of villages and the main hospital in Alexandroupolis, where nearly 70 of the more than 200 patients were transferred to a ferry docked in the city’s port that has been turned into a temporary floating hospital.

Although the strong winds were gradually abating in many parts of the country, the risk of new fires remained high.

“Conditions remain difficult and in many cases extreme,” Mr Artopios said.

Firefighters searching recently burnt areas in the Alexandroupolis region, which is near the border with Turkey, discovered the bodies of 18 people, believed to be migrants, in a forest on Tuesday.

Another two people were found dead on Monday – one in northern Greece and another in a separate fire in central Greece.

Greece Wildfires
Greece Wildfires A helicopter flies towards a wildfire on Parnitha mountain in Acharnes, northern Athens (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece called for assistance from other European countries.

Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent water-dropping aircraft, while Romania and the Czech Republic sent dozens of firefighters and water tanks.

Evacuations were ordered for several areas on the north-western fringe of the Greek capital as a wildfire that started on Tuesday raced up a mountain towards the Parnitha national park, threatened a military base in the area, and torched homes in the foothills.

More than 200 firefighters backed by volunteers, military and police forces, eight helicopters and seven planes, including two from Germany and two from Sweden, were battling the blaze.

The fire in Alexandroupolis continued to burn out of control, with dozens of Romanian firefighters joining the battle against the flames, backed by eight helicopters and five planes, including two from Cyprus.

Supreme Court prosecutor Georgia Adilini asked the Alexandroupolis prosecutor to launch investigations into whether organised arson groups were operating in the region.

Greece Wildfires
Greece Wildfires Firefighters tackle flames at a house in Acharnes, north of Athens (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said at a news conference on Wednesday that the fire in north-eastern Greece had started in several places simultaneously.

Mr Adilini also asked the Alexandroupolis prosecutor to investigate incidents of racist violence, after three men in the Alexandroupolis area allegedly sequestered 13 migrants who they accused of being linked to the wildfire.

Late on Tuesday, police arrested one Albanian and two Greek nationals on suspicion of imprisoning the 13 Syrians and Pakistanis in a car trailer.

A video posted online showed one of the three referring to the migrants in terminology used for livestock and urging other members of the public to round up migrants.

The three were charged on Wednesday with a series of crimes, including kidnapping, and were being held pending a preliminary court hearing later in the week.

Across the border in Turkey’s Canakkale province, strong winds were fanning a wildfire for a second day.

Authorities evacuated a care home for the elderly, some 1,250 residents from nine villages, and closed down a highway. More than 80 people were treated in hospitals for the effects of smoke.

APTOPIX Greece Wildfires
APTOPIX Greece Wildfires A forest fire in the village of Dikela, near Alexandroupolis, in the north-eastern Greece (Achilleas Chiras/AP)

Ibrahim Yumakli, Turkey’s forestry minister, said firefighting teams backed by more than two dozen fire-dousing planes and helicopters had largely blocked the blaze from spreading beyond the 1,500 hectares (15 sq km/nearly six square miles) it has affected so far.

Authorities also suspended maritime traffic through the narrow Dardanelles Strait linking the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which the water-dropping aircraft were using to refill, the minister said.

On Tenerife, authorities said a wildfire burning for more than a week was nearly under control after scorching 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres).

“It’s a very tough battle that the firefighting teams are winning,” said Manuel Miranda, of the Canary Islands regional government.

Authorities said firefighters were working on securing the perimeter, which had reached 55 miles (88km).

Spain is sweltering under its fourth heatwave of the summer. According to the country’s weather service, up to 16 temperature records for August were broken in different parts of the country on Tuesday.

Sporadic fires were also being reported in Italy, which has been engulfed in a heatwave expected to extend into the weekend with temperatures above 38C (100F) in many cities.

Forty firefighters and three aircraft were battling a brush fire that broke out early on Wednesday on the outskirts of the Ligurian seaside town of Sanremo, a popular summer destination. No injuries or property damage were reported.

With their hot, dry summers, southern European countries are particularly prone to wildfires.

European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.