Israel offers aid to Greece as it battles dangerous wildfires

EU disaster response group says assistance being sent to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia, which are all battling massive blazes

A helicopter drops water over a fire in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, August 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
A helicopter drops water over a fire in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, August 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz offered Israeli assistance to his Greek counterpart Wednesday as Greece battled dozens of fires.

“I spoke with Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos in light of the wave of fires that are sweeping the country,” said Gantz. “The defense minister updated me that in the past few days, more than 80 fires have broken out in Greece.”

Gantz said Panagiotopoulos thanked him for the Israeli offer of support. “If any additional assistance is required — in particular air assistance or rescue personnel — we will be at their disposal,” he said.

Israel has in the past sent firefighting planes and rescue teams to assist Greece in battling blazes.

President Isaac Herzog also spoke with his Greek counterpart on Wednesday evening to offer Israeli support. According to the President’s Office, the pair discussed the growing danger of climate change and global warming and the need for international cooperation on the issue.

“The State of Israel is standing by you in unity at this time,” Herzog told Katerina Sakellaropoulou. “I am hopeful that it will be possible to get out of this current situation as quickly as possible.”

A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Athens, Greece, August 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Thodoris Nikolaou)

Greece’s coast guard helped with evacuations Wednesday on the island of Evia, where residents escaping wildfires had fled to a beach for safety, and fire crews across the country struggled to contain new blazes amid the country’s worst heatwave in decades.

The European Union sent assistance to Greece and other countries in southeast Europe that are grappling with huge wildfires after a blaze Tuesday burned more than 100 homes and businesses near the Greek capital of Athens.

Evacuations were also taking place in Greece’s southern Peloponnese region, which was facing a major fire. The coast guard said about 85 people were stranded on a beach in Evia, adding that private boats were also helping in the evacuation.

Temperatures in parts of Greece reached 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) on Wednesday. Neighboring countries are facing similar conditions, fueling deadly wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and across the Mediterranean region. Officials in Albania said one person had died of smoke inhalation outside the southern city of Gjirokaster, where wildfires caused hundreds of residents to flee.

Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said 118 wildfires broke out over the past 24 hours, and warned that even worse days could lie ahead for the hard-pressed fire service.

“We are making a titanic effort on many fronts,” he told an evening briefing. “According to our threat forecasts, tomorrow too is expected to be a difficult day… The toughest part lies ahead of us, the next days and weeks will be even harder. Our key target is to protect human lives.”

A firefighter tries to extinguish the flames at a burning house in Varibobi area, northern Athens, Greece, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, which also showed that the intensity of the wildfires in Turkey was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

Outside Athens, low-flying helicopters and planes dumped water on charred forests around Tatoi, 20 kilometers (12 1/2 miles) north of Athens, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze that started Tuesday. At least 80 cars were burned.

“The ground crews did vital work, [fighting] nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control center. “We had no loss of human life… Homes will be rebuilt and over time the forest will grow back.”

Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to douse the flames, and water-dropping buckets were attached to military helicopters. Authorities said more than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and more than 500 people were put up for the night in hotels.

The fire sent clouds of smoke over the Greek capital, prompting warnings for people with breathing difficulties to stay indoors.

An EU disaster response group said assistance, including firefighters and water-dropping planes, was being sent from EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.

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