Sunday, June 26

Thousands of people flee the Greek island as fires devastate forests and homes | Greece

Thousands of people have fled wildfires that are destroying vast expanses of pine forests and razing houses on Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, as devastating summer fires ravage from southern Europe to Siberia.

“We have another difficult night ahead of us, another difficult night,” Greece’s deputy civil protection minister Nikos Hardalias said on Sunday, adding that nearly a week after the fires started, strong winds were driving two major fire fronts. in the north and north of Greece. south of the island.

Seventeen firefighting planes and helicopters were in action on the island, just northeast of the capital Athens, where fires in a northern suburb and the nearby Peloponnese region remained stable, although the risk of revival remained high. .

Forest fires have devastated large areas in southern Europe for fifteen days as the region endures its most extreme heat wave in three decades. Ten have died in Greece and Turkey, and many admitted to hospital. Italy has also suffered millions of euros in damages.

Huge fires have also been burning in Siberia in northern Russia for several weeks, prompting the evacuation of a dozen villages on Saturday. Wildfires have burned nearly 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of land this year in Russia, while hot, dry and windy conditions have also sparked devastating fires in California.

evacuated people
The Greek coast guard has evacuated more than 2,000 people from Evia by sea. Photograph: Petros Karadjias / AP

Rain eased the situation in Turkey over the weekend, but record temperatures, linked by experts to the climate crisis, continued unabated in Greece, where a helicopter transported an injured firefighter from Mount Parnitha, north of Athens. , on Sunday.

The coast guard evacuated more than 2,000 people by sea, including 349 on Sunday, from thickly forested Evia, a popular summer vacation destination, and ferries hoped more would be carried away as hell forced authorities to order residents. leaving several dozen villages. .

With temperatures as high as 45 ° C (113 ° F) and completely dry conditions, the coast guard said three patrol boats, four navy vessels, a ferry, two tourist boats, and private and fishing vessels were ready to evacuate. more people from the coastal town of Pefki, in the north of the country.

“I feel angry. I lost my home … nothing will be the same the next day,” Vasilikia, a resident, told local journalists aboard a rescue ferry. “It’s a disaster. It’s huge. Our villages are destroyed, there is nothing left of our houses, our properties, nothing ”.

As 260 firefighters from Greece and 200 more from Ukraine and Romania battled the flames, young people led elderly and sick residents to safety across the sand. Others fled their villages on foot at night amid apocalyptic scenes.

The heat was so intense that the water evaporated before reaching the fires, witnesses said. The governor of central Greece, Fanis Spanos, said that the situation in the north of the island had been “very difficult” for almost a week.

“The fronts are huge, the area of ​​scorched earth is huge,” Spanos said. More than 2,500 people have been housed in hotels and other shelters, he said. Greece has deployed the army to help fight the fires and 10 countries, including France, Egypt, Switzerland, Spain and Britain, have sent aid, including personnel and aircraft.

Hardals said conditions in Evia were particularly harsh for firefighting planes and helicopters, whose pilots faced “great danger” with limited visibility, air turbulence and strong wind currents from the fire, he said.

On Sunday, Serbia announced that it would send 13 vehicles with 37 firefighters and three firefighting helicopters to Greece, where 56,655 hectares of land have been burned in the last 10 days, compared to an average between 2008 and 2020 of 1,700 hectares.

The causes of the fires are being investigated, and several are believed to have been deliberately started. Three people were arrested on Friday, in the Athens metropolitan area, central and southern Greece, on suspicion of starting fires, in two cases intentionally.

A 47-year-old Greek was arrested Saturday afternoon in an Athens suburb after setting two fires in a grove and setting four garbage trucks on fire, police said. Three men, aged between 16 and 21, were arrested on Sunday in the port city of Piraeus, near Athens, for attempted arson in nearby Perama.

Many villages were saved only because young people ignored evacuation orders and stayed to keep fires away from their homes, Giorgos Tsapourniotis, mayor of Mantoudi in Evia, told local media.

Many villagers criticized the authorities’ response. “The state is absent,” Yannis Selimis, a town in the north of the island, told Agence-France Presse. “For the next 40 years we will have no work, and in the winter we are going to drown in the floods without the forests that protected us.”

Residents fight a forest fire in the village of Gouves in Evia.
Residents fight a forest fire in the village of Gouves in Evia. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

In Turkey, firefighters previously described the Herculean efforts that many had made. Günaydın Sözen, 48, of the Istanbul fire service, told The Guardian that he had been a firefighter for 21 years, but had never been called upon to fight a forest fire before.

He said he and 24 colleagues from the department had helped fight a fire near the Kemerköy thermal plant in Muğla province for five days, “working around the clock … the area of ​​the fires is so large that he created his own climate and sea air generates more wind. ” that actually makes it turn on even more. “

Sözen said that the fire acts “in a different way, because of the olive trees. They are very oily, so it is not enough to water the bark, they burn from the inside, due to the oil, so we have to get close enough to run the water through the trunk from above ”.

Local people had been “a huge help,” he said, bringing everything from food to cold water to clean shirts. But his team had “seen so many dead creatures, lizards, everything you can imagine,” he said. “We saved a turtle.”

Yusuf Doğan Gürer, 36, deputy director of the Istanbul Avrupa Yakasi fire department (European side), said firefighters had pushed their vehicles and their own bodies to the limit to try to get as close to the fires as possible.

“You have to be in good physical condition, much more than we are used to in the city,” he said. “We had to evacuate the area three times, that has never happened before when we work anywhere else. Once, we got trapped inside the flames. “

The experience had been hard, he said, but “it taught us a lot. The way the flames move and how fast they move are things we have to adapt to. Phones are not working properly, so coordination is difficult. We will stay here as long as they need us. “

Agence-France Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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