Thousands of people fled wildfires burning out of control in Greece and Turkey on Friday, as a protracted heat wave turned forests into tinderboxes and flames threatened populated areas, electricity installations and historic sites.
On the Greek island of Evia, the coast guard mounted a major operation to evacuate hundreds of people by sea, using patrol boats as well as fishing and private vessels to rescue residents and vacationers from encroaching flames overnight and into Friday.
Dozens of other villages and neighbourhoods were emptied in the southern Peloponnese region and just north of the Greek capital as blazes raced through pine forests.
“We’re talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coast guard in the town of Aidipsos on Evia, told state broadcaster ERT, describing the sea evacuation.
Coast guard spokesperson Nikos Kokkalas told ERT that 653 people had been evacuated from beaches in northeast Evia after all other means of escape were cut off by the fires.
WATCH | Fierce winds fan rampaging wildfires in Greece: Wildfires are tearing through parts of Greece, driving thousands from their homes, but some stayed to protect property. ‘Leave? And let my house burn?’ said 71-year old Giannis Kenellopoulos of Lasdikas. (Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters) 1:14
Fires have raged in many parts of Greece as the country has been baked by a prolonged heat wave that sent temperatures soaring to 45 C.
Thousands of people have fled their homes or holiday accommodation, while at least 20 people, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries. Two of the firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while another two were hospitalized with light burns, the Health Ministry said.
In neighbouring Turkey, wildfires described as the worst in decades have swept through swaths of the southern coast for the past 10 days, killing eight people.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 aircraft are now battling major fires across Greece. Several European countries are sending or have already sent firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles to help.
‘Major heat wave’
Although temperatures dipped below 40 C for the first time in nearly 10 days in many parts of Greece, strong winds were predicted for Friday afternoon for much of the country, weather that could further hamper firefighting efforts.
“We are going through the 10th day of a major heat wave affecting our entire country, the worst heat wave in terms of intensity and duration of the last 30 years,” said Fire Service Brig. Gen. Aristotelis Papadopoulos.
In Turkey, authorities evacuated six more neighbourhoods near the town of Milas, in Mugla province, Friday as a wildfire fanned by winds burned some five kilometres from a power plant. At least 36,000 people were evacuated to safety in Mugla province alone, officials said.
Meanwhile, several excavators cleared strips of land to form firebreaks in a bid to stop flames from reaching the Yenikoy plant, the second such facility to be threatened by wildfires in the region.
See some of the devastation caused by wildfires in Turkey: A man receives eyes drops as fire crews fight to extinguish a wildfire in Akcakoca, in the holiday region of Mugla on Friday, as Turkey struggles against its deadliest wildfires in years. (Serdar Gurbuz/AFP/Getty Images)Firefighters and local volunteers carry hoses as they fight to extinguish a wildfire in Oren, in the holiday region of Mugla on Friday. (Serdar Gurbuz/AFP/Getty Images)An aerial photo shows a ravaged area and burned trees in Mugla, Thursday in the Kavaklodere district of Turkey. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)
On Wednesday, a fire reached the compound of the coal-fuelled Kemerkoy power plant, forcing nearby residents to flee in navy vessels and cars. It was contained on Thursday after raging for some 11 hours and officials said the plant’s main units were not damaged.
Wildfires near the tourism resort of Marmaris, also in Mugla province, were largely contained by late Thursday, officials said, while at least two fires were still burning in Antalya province, another beach holiday destination.
In Greece, firefighters went door to door in areas around 20 kilometres north of Athens telling people to evacuate, while helicopters dropped water on towering flames and thick smoke blanketed the area. Authorities sent push alerts to mobile phones in the area urging residents to evacuate.
Constant flare-ups that threatened inhabited areas hampered the work of hundreds of firefighters there.
The fire halted traffic on the country’s main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece Thursday and damaged electricity installations, leading the power distribution company to warn of the possibility of rolling power cuts.
See some of the damage caused by fires around Athens: A man throws water from a swimming pool as the fire approaches his house in Ippokratios Politia village, about 35 kilometres north of Athens. (Thanassis Stavrakis/The Associated Press)Men try to extinguish a fire near a children’s slide Friday in the village of Afidnes, 30 kilometres north of Athens. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)Crews spray water near houses on Friday as a fire spreads in Afidnes. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)The owners of a burned home arrive to survey the damage on Friday after a wildfire raged through Drosopigi village, north of Athens. (Thanassis Stavrakis/The Associated Press)
In the Drosopigi area, resident Giorgos Hatzispiros surveyed the damage to his house Friday morning, the first time he was seeing it after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single-storey home remained, along with his children’s bicycles, somehow unscathed in a storeroom. Inside, smoke rose from a still-smouldering bookcase.
“Nothing is left,” Hatzispiros said. He urged his mother to leave, to spare her the sight of their destroyed home.
In southern Greece, nearly 60 villages and settlements were evacuated Thursday and early Friday.
In addition to Evia, fires were burning in multiple locations in the southern Peloponnese region where a blaze was stopped before reaching monuments at Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.
Fires disrupt vaccination efforts
The fires have also disrupted COVID-19 vaccinations. The Health Ministry announced the suspension of vaccinations at centres in areas affected by the fires, saying appointments could be rescheduled when conditions allow.
“Our priority is always the protection of human life, followed by the protection of property, the natural environment and critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, achieving all these aims at the same time is simply impossible,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday night.
The wildfires, he said, display “the reality of climate change.”
Hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fuelled devastating wildfires in California, decimating whole towns in some cases.
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of them drowned trying to escape by sea from the choking smoke and flames after becoming trapped on a beach.