Greece: Thousands of people displaced by wildfires

More than 500 firefighters fought all night to contain a massive wildfire on the outskirts of Athens that spilled over into residential areas Tuesday, forcing thousands of people to flee. It was the worst of 81 wildfires that have broken out in Greece in the past 24 hours amid the country’s worst heat wave in decades.

Civil Defense Chief Nikos Hardalias said the fire north of Athens was “very dangerous” and was exacerbated by high winds and dryness caused by heat that reached 45 degrees Celsius in the area.

No serious injuries were reported, authorities said several buildings were damaged, but no details were available. The cause of the fire was unclear.

“We continue to fight hour after hour, our top priority is saving lives,” Hardalias said. “We’re going to be doing this all night.”

“These are crucial hours,” Hardalias said. “Our country is experiencing one of the worst heat waves in 40 years.”

The winds eased Tuesday, and Greater Athens Regional Governor Giorgos Patoulis said that could allow the fire to be tamed after the planes dumping water resume operations with the first rays of sunshine Wednesday.

“If the winds don’t pick up, the fire can be brought under control by early morning, and then the planes can try to douse the fires with water,” he said in an interview with state television station ERT.

The fire raised a huge cloud of smoke over Athens, causing numerous evacuations in the Tatoi area, 20 kilometers to the north, and forcing a partial closure of Greece’s main north-south highway. Residents left their homes in cars and motorcycles, often cradling their pets, heading toward the capital amid a smokescreen.

One group stopped to help riding school staff push their horses into trucks to escape the flames.

Fire crews went from house to house to make sure evacuation orders were followed, and 315 people were escorted to safety after calling for help. Authorities said no one was reported missing, and Greek media reported that six people needed treatment for mild respiratory problems.

As the heat wave that gripped the eastern Mediterranean intensified, temperatures in parts of the Greek capital reached 42 degrees Celsius. The extreme weather caused deadly wildfires in Turkey and fires in Italy, Greece, Albania and other countries in the region.

Forest fires raged in other parts of Greece as well, leading to the evacuation of residents in the villages of Mani and Vasilitsa in the southern Peloponnese region and on the islands of Evia and Kos, authorities said. A total of 40 fires raged late Tuesday.

The fires forced Greek basketball star Giannis Antitokounmpo to cancel planned celebrations in Athens for the NBA title he recently won with the Milwaukee Bucks.

“We hope there are no casualties from these fires, and of course we will postpone today’s celebration,” Antitokounmpo tweeted.

Earlier, authorities closed the Acropolis and other ancient sites during daylight hours. The Acropolis, which is normally open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer, will operate on a reduced schedule until Friday, closing from noon to 5 p.m.

The extreme heat wave, described by authorities as the worst in Greece since 1987, has led to power outages in the country and caused wildfires.

The national electricity grid operator said the power supply to parts of the capital was “at risk” after parts of the transmission system damaged and threatened by the fires were shut down.

Seven aircraft and nine helicopters, including a Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft leased from Russia, were involved in extinguishing the fires near Athens. They ceased operation after dark for safety reasons.

The fire damaged power transmission poles, putting additional strain on the power grid, which is already under pressure due to the widespread use of air conditioners.

The Greek fire department declared an alert for most of the country for Tuesday and Wednesday, while public and some private services changed their hours of operation to allow for afternoon closures.

Hardalias urged the public to be extra vigilant.

“As the heat wave will continue in the coming days, please avoid any activity that could lead to a fire,” he said.

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