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Israel to dispatch firefighters to blaze-stricken Greece

15 crew members and large supply of firefighting chemicals ready to depart Friday afternoon, with tankers possibly to follow, as brushfires expected to worsen

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire in Afidnes area, northern Athens, Greece, on Thursday, August 5, 2021. (AP/Michael Varaklas)
Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire in Afidnes area, northern Athens, Greece, on Thursday, August 5, 2021. (AP/Michael Varaklas)

Israeli firefighters are preparing to be dispatched to Greece to join in an international effort to douse massive wildfires raging across southern Europe, the Fire and Rescue Authority said on Thursday.

Fueled by one of the worst heatwaves in decades and largely blamed on climate change, more than 110 wildfires have been raging in Greece, threatening homes north of Athens and ancient archaeological treasures, and forcing tens of thousands to flee, with officials predicting that the flames will only grow as winds pick up on Friday.

Israeli fire chief Dedy Simhi spoke to his Greek counterpart and offered to send 15 firefighters and “a large amount of fire retardant material,” the fire service said in a statement.

Firefighting planes may also be sent to Greece later in the week, the service said.

Israel “intends to deploy [the firefighters] as early as Friday, so that members of the Israeli delegation can immediately join international aid efforts for the country that is going up in flames,” the service said.

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

On Friday, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev authorized the dispatch of 15 firefighters and rescue personnel, who his office said in a statement, were gearing up to depart in the afternoon.

The statement said the request for assistance was made by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and relayed by Israeli Ambassador Yosef Amrani.

A burnt forest during a wildfire in Kourkouloi village on the island of Evia, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Athens, Greece, on Thursday, August 5, 2021. (AP/Thodoris Nikolaou)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and President Isaac Herzog had offered the aid in calls with their Greek counterparts on Wednesday.

“If any additional assistance is required — in particular air assistance or rescue personnel — we will be at their disposal,” Gantz said.

Leaders in Greece and neighboring Turkey, where over 100 fires were also burning on Thursday, have come under pressure from local officials for what they felt was an insufficiently resolute response.

“We are asking the authorities to reinforce the air and land forces so as not to risk human lives,” the mayor of the town of Limni, Giorgos Tsapourniotis, told Greece’s ANA news agency.

Greece’s Civil Protection Agency said the risk of fires across southern Greece would increase further on Friday, with a windy weather forecast for parts of the country, despite an expected slight dip in temperatures that reached 45° Celsius (113° F) earlier this week. The heat wave is described as Greece’s worst since 1987.

The European Union has already sent 40 French firefighters and eight tons of material to help Greece.

Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos said the armed forces would expand their role in fire prevention, with ground patrols, drones, and aircraft over areas vulnerable to wildfires.

On Thursday, water-dropping planes and helicopters swooped over blazes near the capital, in central Greece, on the island of Evia, and near Ancient Olympia to the south. Dozens of villages and settlements were evacuated, including a beachside campsite and hotels on Evia, where boats were used to transport stranded vacationers to safety.

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

Outside Athens, a forest fire that broke out on the northern fringes of the capital on Tuesday, and damaged or destroyed scores of homes, rekindled on Thursday, triggering fresh evacuations, threatening homes and sending thick smoke over the capital.

In a dramatic scene as flames approached, fire crews went house to house to escort residents out of homes some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of the capital. The fire threatened the power supply to parts of the capital after damaging the transmission network, officials said.

The fires also drew closer to a summer palace at Tatoi outside Athens, once used by the former Greek royal family, as well as an archaeological site in southern Greece that was the birthplace of the ancient Olympics.

“Our priority is always the protection of human life, followed by the protection of property, the natural environment and critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, achieving all these aims at the same time is simply impossible,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address late Thursday. The wildfires, he said, display “the reality of climate change.”

Earlier, he visited Tatoi as well as Ancient Olympia, where flame lighting ceremonies for the modern summer and winter Olympics are held every two years.

A heat wave baking southeast Europe for a second week has also triggered deadly fires in Turkey and Albania and blazes across the region.

North Macedonia’s government on Thursday declared the country in a state of crisis for the next 30 days due to wildfires.

Flames burn on a mountain during a wildfire near Limni village on the island of Evia, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Athens, Greece, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (AP/Thodoris Nikolaou)

On the island of Evia, a major fire that broke out on Tuesday was ravaging forests, leading to the evacuation of villages and a camping site, sending people fleeing in cars and by sea.

The fires have not caused any deaths or serious injuries in Greece. But Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month exceeded 50 percent of the average area burned in the country in previous years.

An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 14,800 acres went up in smoke between Sunday and Wednesday, compared to 10,400 hectares in the whole of last year.

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

The causes of the Greek wildfires were unclear, but authorities say human error and carelessness are most frequently to blame.

The EU commissioner for the environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, said the fires and extreme weather globally over the summer were a clear signal for the need to address climate change.

“We are fighting some of the worst wildfires we’ve seen in decades. But this summer’s floods, heatwaves and forest fires can become our new normality,” he wrote in a tweet.

“We must ask ourselves: Is this the world we want to live in? We need immediate actions for nature before it’s too late.”

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