Wildfires force evacuations in southern Greece

Limni, Greece — Wildfires rekindled outside Athens and forced more evacuations around southern Greece on Thursday as weather conditions worsened and firefighters in a round-the-clock battle stopped the flames just outside the birthplace of the ancient Olympics.

As additional support arrived from Greece’s military and European Union countries, water-dropping planes and helicopters swooped over blazes near the capital, on the island of Evia and near Ancient Olympia to the south.

“The country is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, with multiple large fires,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after visiting the site where the Olympics were held in antiquity every four years from 776 B.C. for more than a millennium. More than a dozen villages were evacuated in the area.

A heatwave baking southeast Europe for a second week has also triggered deadly fires in Turkey and Albania and blazes across the region. North Macedonia’s government on Thursday declared the country in a state of crisis for the next 30 days due to wildfires.

The EU Commissioner for the environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, said the fires and extreme weather globally over the summer were a clear signal for the need to address climate change. “We are fighting some of the worst wildfires we’ve seen in decades. But this summer’s floods, heatwaves and forest fires can become our new normality,” he wrote in a tweet.

“We must ask ourselves: Is this the world we want to live in? We need immediate actions for nature before it’s too late.”

Greece Fires
Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire near Olympia town, western Greece, on August 5, 2021.  Giannis Spyrounis / AP

The EU bolstered assistance to fire-stricken countries, sending 40 French firefighters and eight tons of material to help Greece.

Greece’s Civil Protection Agency said the risk of fires across southern Greece would increase further Friday, despite an expected slight dip in temperatures that reached 113 F earlier this week. The heatwave was described as Greece’s worst since 1987.

Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos said the armed forces would expand their role in fire prevention, with ground patrols, drones, and aircraft over areas vulnerable to wildfires.

Outside Athens, a forest fire that broke out Tuesday and damaged or destroyed scores of homes rekindled, triggering fresh evacuations in the area and sending thick smoke over the capital.

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, adding that the estimated intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

Greece Wildfires
Local residents watch the wildfire near Olympia town, western Greece, Thursday, August 5, 2021. Giannis Spyrounis / AP

On the island of Evia, a major fire that broke out Tuesday was ravaging forests, leading to the evacuation of villages. More than 160 firefighters, three planes and three helicopters, as well as five ground teams and 57 vehicles, were deployed.

The fires have not caused any deaths or serious injuries. But Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month in Greece exceeded 50% of the average area burned in the country in previous years. An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 14,800 acres went up in smoke between Sunday and Wednesday, compared to 25,700 acres in the whole of last year.

The causes of the Greek wildfires were unclear, but authorities say human error and carelessness are most frequently to blame.