Greek wildfires: Multinational force fights to tame flareups
August 11, 2021 By Petros Karadjias And Nicholas Paphitis, The Associated Press
PEFKI, Greece (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters from across Europe and the Middle East worked alongside Greek colleagues in rugged terrain Wednesday to contain flareups of the huge wildfires that ravaged Greece’s forests for a week, destroying homes and forcing evacuations.
The spread of the blazes has been largely halted, officials said, but fronts still burned on the large island of Evia, and in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region where several homes were on fire, according to state ERT TV.
The fires broke out last week as Greece had just experienced its worst and most protracted heatwave since 1987, leaving its forests tinder-dry. Other nearby nations such as Turkey and Italy also faced similar searing temperatures and quickly spreading fires, while Spain and Portugal were on alert for wildfires amid a heatwave forecast to last through Monday.
At the other end of the Mediterranean, in Algeria, wildfires have killed 65 people, authorities said Wednesday.
Worsening drought and heat – both linked to climate change – have also fueled wildfires this summer in the Western U.S. and in Russia’s northern Siberia region. Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events.
Greece’s fire service said a total 900 firefighters, including teams from Poland, Romania, Cyprus, Ukraine, Serbia, Slovakia and Moldova, were in action on Evia, which is the country’s second-largest island and is linked to the mainland by a bridge.
Evia’s rugged, forested northern part, with upland villages and small seaside resorts, has suffered the greatest damage from this month’s blazes, with an estimated 50,000 hectares (123,000 acres) lost, together with dozens of homes.
Retiree Maria Roga said that although her house in Evia’s village of Pefki was saved at the last moment from flames that burned a neighboring home, she still worries about flareups.
“I’m still afraid. I’m afraid,” she told The Associated Press Wednesday. “(But) I can’t complain, I am very grateful, I am one of the lucky ones.” Though most of Pefki’s homes are intact, the village – whose name means pine tree – is now surrounded by rank upon rank of blackened trees.
Some 600 firefighters from Greece, the Czech Republic, Britain, France and Germany were also deployed Wednesday near ancient Olympia and in Arcadia in the Peloponnese, assisted by 14 water-dropping aircraft, including a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 that can drop more than 40 tons at one go, and volunteers.
A massive fire that broke out last week north of Athens has been limited to a section of a national park on Mount Parnitha, with mostly ground forces trying to put it out with the help of a helicopter. Firefighters from France, Qatar, Kuwait and Israel were deployed there.
Despite the massive destruction to forests, wildlife and livestock – and homes, although official estimates are not yet available – Greek authorities’ core policy of evacuating villages to protect extensive loss of life has paid off: One volunteer firefight died last week after being struck by a falling electricity pole, and two have been hospitalized in serious condition with burns.
A wildfire killed 102 people near Athens in 2018, and more than 80 died in a series of blazes in southern Greece in 2007.
The health ministry said Wednesday another three firefighters required treatment for respiratory problems and light burns suffered in the Arcadia fire.
Nevertheless, some local officials and residents have criticized the evacuation policy, saying that while it saved lives it sent away able-bodied villagers who could have helped firefighters battle the flames. Others have complained that water-dropping planes and even ground forces were absent at crucial times.
On the outskirts of Kamatriades on Evia Tuesday, residents cutting firebreaks through the forest said they had received no help in protecting their village.
“We need some help here, we need some help. We are fighting alone, (for) seven days now,” said Dimitris Stefanidakis.
Officials say they used all means available against what Greece’s civil protection chief described as the fire service’s biggest-ever challenge. In eight days, authorities had to deal with 586 fires across the country, while billowing smoke often reduced visibility so much that waterbombing aircraft couldn’t be deployed.
The causes of the blazes are under investigation, and authorities say that in at least one major blaze arson seems likely. Several people have been arrested in different parts of the country and charged with causing fires, in some cases intentionally.
The government has pledged a large compensation and reforestation program.
Big fires are also burning in Italy, which claimed a third life Wednesday when local authorities said the body of a 77-year-old shepherd was found in the southern Calabria region. Italy’s La Presse news agency said he was in a farmhouse where he apparently sought refuge from the flames, along with his flock.
Last week, a woman and her nephew died of smoke inhalation as they tried to save the family olive grove at the edge of the forest.
In Turkey, firefighters worked to extinguish a wildfire in the southwest Mugla province, which runs along the Aegean Sea. At least eight people and countless animals have died in more than 200 wildfires in Turkey since July 28.
Paphitis reported from Kontias, Greece. Lefteris Pittarakis in Kamatriades, Greece, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.