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Greek officials say massive wildfires ‘slowly coming under control’

Hundreds of firefighters still battling flames as blazes rage for ninth straight day, amid growing calls for resignation of top public safety officials

Firefighters try to extinguish the burning blaze of a forest fire near in the village of Avgaria on the Greek island of Evia, August 10, 2021. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP)
Firefighters try to extinguish the burning blaze of a forest fire near in the village of Avgaria on the Greek island of Evia, August 10, 2021. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP)

ATHENS, Greece — Hundreds of firefighters were battling to control two massive wildfires in Greece on Wednesday, one raging for nine straight days, that have left hundreds homeless and caused incalculable damage.

With the assistance of a huge multinational force, Greek fire crews were fighting to beat back blazes on the island of Evia and in the Peloponnese peninsula in rugged terrain.

“I think we can say that the fire fronts are slowly coming under control,” Yiannis Kontzias, mayor of the Evia town of Istiaia that has been under threat for days, told state TV ERT.

“Yesterday, we saw the light of the sun for the first time in days,” he said, referring to giant smoke clouds that have choked residents and obstructed water drops by firefighting aircraft.

The situation was more precarious in the mountainous Peloponnese region of Gortynia, home to dense forests and deep ravines.

Christos Lambropoulos, deputy governor for the broader Arcadia region, said efforts were concentrated on keeping the fire from reaching the thickly forested Mount Mainalo.

“Villages do not seem at risk at the moment… but conditions change by the hour,” he told ERT.

A house is burning as forest fires approach the village of Pefki on Evia island, Greece’s second largest island, on August 8, 2021. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP)

Three people have died in the latest fire wave, which came in the midst of Greece’s most severe heatwave in decades.

Many locals admit that help from abroad has been critical in averting an even greater disaster.

EU states and other countries have so far contributed 21 aircraft, 250 vehicles and more than 1,200 firefighters, some of whom were due to arrive by Friday.

Forces in Gortynia were beefed up Wednesday to nearly 600 firefighters including crews from the Czech Republic, Britain, France and Germany.

Another 60 firemen were tackling a smaller fire in Laconia, in the southeastern Peloponnese, the fire department said.

In Evia, a presence of nearly 900 firefighters was arrayed against the wildfires including Cypriots, Moldovans, Poles, Serbs, Slovaks, Romanians and Ukrainians. Serbian, Swedish and Swiss planes and helicopters were among a fleet of seven aircraft providing support.

An aircraft drops water during a wildfire in Kryoneri area, northern Athens, Greece, August 5, 2021. (AP/Michael Varaklas)

There have been growing calls in Greece for the resignation of top public safety officials who as recently as June had insisted that the country was well-prepared.

“(Our resources were) stronger than ever before. We faced an operationally unique situation with 586 fires in eight days during the worst weather phenomenon in 40 years,” civil protection deputy minister Nikos Hardalias insisted on Tuesday.

‘We face extinction’

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis this week apologized to the nation for any possible “shortcomings” in the state’s response. He is to hold a press conference on Thursday as pressure mounts for heads to roll.

In addition to hundreds of homes lost according to early estimates and the blow to Greece’s dwindling forests, the cost to local economies is expected to be daunting.

“We face extinction,” said mayor Kontzias in Evia, whose jurisdiction includes the popular spa town of Aidipsos.

Flames leap from trees as the Dixie Fire jumps Highway 89 north of Greenville in Plumas County, California on Aug. 3, 2021. Dry and windy conditions have led to increased fire activity as firefighters battle the blaze which ignited July 14. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“We have lost the month of August, which would have sustained people here in the coming year.”

“(Local) tourism has been demolished, most (visitors) have left,” he said. “The damage is huge, and the environmental disaster will have economic repercussions for decades,” he said.

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