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Firefighters try to stop Greek island blaze from reaching thick forest

As huge wildfires threaten countless communities and cause apocalyptic scenes on island of Evia, Israel and other countries trying to help Greece hinder the blaze’s advance

This picture taken on Evia island, the second largest Greek island, on August 8, 2021 shows a wildfire moving towards the village of Gouves. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP)
This picture taken on Evia island, the second largest Greek island, on August 8, 2021 shows a wildfire moving towards the village of Gouves. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP)

PEFKI, Greece (AFP) — Firefighters tried Monday to prevent fires from reaching key communities and a thick forest that could further fuel an inferno that one official said has destroyed hundreds of homes in seven days on the Greek island of Evia.

If most of nearly two weeks of fires had stabilized or receded in other parts of Greece, the ones on rugged and forested Evia were the most worrying and created apocalyptic scenes.

Firefighters were putting the priority on saving the villages of Kamatriades and Galatsades on Monday because “if the fire passes through there, it will end up in a thick forest that will be difficult to extinguish,” firefighters told the Greek news agency ANA.

After the fire laid siege to one village after another on the north of the island, firefighters also toiled until dawn to quench flames at Monokarya in order to protect the town of Istiaia, all without the help of water-dousing aircraft, ANA reported.

Thick and suffocating smoke on Monday also enveloped the coastal region of Pefki, where hundreds of villagers had been evacuated by sea, while others regrouped, an AFP reporting team said.

Greece and neighboring Turkey have been battling the devastating fires for nearly two weeks as the region suffers its worst heatwave in decades. Two people have been confirmed dead in Greece and eight in Turkey, while dozens have been hospitalized.

While rain brought some respite from the blazes in Turkey over the weekend, Greece continued to suffer from an intense heatwave that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said should show even doubters the hard reality of climate change.

Local residents look at the wildfire approaching the village of Gouves on Evia island, the second largest Greek island, on August 8, 2021. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP)

On Sunday Civil protection deputy minister Nikos Hardalias warned of “another difficult night” ahead, saying that strong winds were pushing a fire front towards beach villages on Evia, northeast of Athens.

Among 650 firefighters deployed on the island, Greece’s second-biggest after Crete, were 250 from Serbia and Romania, supported by 11 planes and helicopters dousing flames with water during the day, according to the Greek firefighting services.

But the air support faced “serious difficulties” because of turbulence, thick smoke and limited visibility, Hardalias said.

Giorgos Kelaitzidis, Evia’s deputy governor, echoed many when he blasted the “insufficient forces” to fight the fires while “the situation is critical” on the island.

He said at least 35,000 hectares of land (86,500 acres) and hundreds of homes have been burned.

This satellite photo provides by Planet Labs Inc. shows smoke rising from fires on the island of Evia, Greece, August 5, 2021. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

‘In the hands of God’

Hundreds of people have already fled the island and another 349 were taken to safety early on Sunday, the coast guard said.

In Pefki village, young people carried older people over the sand onto a ferry.

Elsewhere, villagers joined in the battle against the flames, helping firefighters.

“We are in the hands of God,” 26-year-old Evia resident Yannis Selimis told AFP. “The state is absent. If people leave, the villages will burn for sure.”

The situation looked better elsewhere, with officials saying that fires in the southwestern Peloponnese region and in a suburb north of Athens had abated. A fire on Crete was brought under control.

But Hardalias warned the risk of fires resurging was heightened.

Some 300 firefighters remained mobilized on the Peleponnese and rescue teams on Monday still fought flames at the foot of Mount Parnes, 30 kilometers (17 miles) north of Athens. These included units from Israel as well as Cyprus and France.

From July 29 to August 7, 56,655 hectares (140,000 acres) were burnt in Greece, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. The average area burnt over the same period between 2008 and 2020 was 1,700 hectares.

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