Israel on Friday dispatched a team of firefighters to Athens as thousands of people fled wildfires burning out of control in Greece, including a major blaze just north of the Greek capital that left one person dead.
The Israeli team, consisting of 16 firefighters, is also shipping “a large amount of fire retardant material,” the fire service said in a statement.
“Israel is coming to assist Greece out of friendship and mutual aid,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. “The entire region is dealing with the challenges of climate change and the fires threaten lives and property.”
“I thank the firefighters who are going in the name of the State of Israel to assist our Greek friends,” he said.
Fires have ravaged Greece and neighboring Turkey in recent days as a protracted heatwave turned forests into tinderboxes and flames threatened populated areas, electricity installations and historic sites.
Turkey’s wildfires, described as the worst in decades, have swept through swaths of the southern coast for the past 10 days, killing eight people.
In Greece, firefighters were battling 56 active wildfires, Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said. Multiple evacuation orders were issued for inhabited areas of the mainland and the nearby island of Evia, while the fire near Athens burned forests and houses in its path heading toward Lake Marathon, the capital’s main water reservoir.
“We continue our effort hour by hour to tackle the multiple fires we face today,” Hardalias said. “Conditions are exceptionally dangerous.” The wind picked up Friday afternoon in many parts of Greece, increasing the risk of fires.
Athens’ main trauma hospital said a 38-year-old man died after sustaining a head injury from a falling utility pole in Ippokrateios Politeia, one of the neighborhoods north of Athens affected by the fire.
On Evia, the coast guard mounted a major operation to evacuate hundreds of people by sea, using patrol vessels, fishing and tourist boats and private vessels to rescue residents and vacationers overnight and into Friday. Dozens of other villages and neighborhoods were emptied in the southern Peloponnese region and just north of the Greek capital as blazes raced through pine forests.
“We’re talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coast guard in the town of Aidipsos on Evia, told state broadcaster ERT, describing the sea evacuation.
The coast guard said 668 people had been evacuated from beaches in northeast Evia by early Friday afternoon after flames cut off all other means of escape. Coast guard vessels continued to patrol the coastline.
A coast guard vessel also rescued another 10 people trapped on a beach by another fire near the town of Gythio in the southern Peloponnese region.
Greek and European officials have blamed climate change for the multiple fires burning through swathes of southern Europe, from southern Italy to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey. Massive fires have been burning across Siberia in Russia’s north for weeks, while hot, bone-dry, gusty weather has also fueled devastating wildfires in California, decimating whole towns in some cases.
Greece has been baked by its most protracted heatwave in three decades, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Thousands have fled homes and holiday accommodation, while at least 20 people, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries. Two of the firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while another two were hospitalized with light burns, the health ministry said.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 aircraft are now battling major fires across Greece, while extra firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles were arriving from France, Switzerland, Romania, Cyprus, Croatia, Israel and Sweden.
In Turkey, authorities on Friday evacuated six more neighborhoods near the Mugla province town of Milas as a wildfire fanned by winds burned some 5 kilometers (3 miles) from a power plant. At least 36,000 people were evacuated to safety in Mugla province alone, officials said.
Meanwhile, several excavators cleared strips of land to form firebreaks in a bid to stop flames from reaching the Yenikoy power plant, the second such facility to be threatened by wildfires in the region.
Wildfires near the tourism resort of Marmaris, also in Mugla province, were largely contained by late Thursday, officials said, while by Friday afternoon, the two main fires in neighboring Antalya province were brought under control and cooling efforts were underway, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli announced on Twitter.
In Greece, firefighters went door to door in areas around 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Athens telling people to evacuate, while helicopters dropped water on towering flames and thick smoke blanketed the area. Authorities sent push alerts to mobile phones in the area urging residents to leave, while a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital was evacuated overnight.
Constant flare-ups that threatened inhabited areas hampered the work of hundreds of firefighters there.
The fire halted traffic on the country’s main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece and damaged electricity installations. The power distribution company announced rolling cuts in the wider capital region to protect the electrical grid.
In the Drosopigi area, resident Giorgos Hatzispiros surveyed the damage to his house Friday morning, the first time he was seeing it after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single-story home remained, along with his children’s bicycles, somehow unscathed in a storeroom. Inside, smoke rose from a still-smoldering bookcase.
“Nothing is left,” Hatzispiros said. He urged his mother to leave, to spare her the sight of their destroyed home.
In southern Greece, dozens of villages and settlements were evacuated, where a blaze was stopped before reaching monuments at Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.
The fires also disrupted COVID-19 vaccinations. The health ministry announced the suspension of vaccinations at centers in fire-affected areas, saying appointments could be rescheduled when conditions allow.
“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 Thursday night.
The wildfires, he said, display “the reality of climate change.”
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a fast-moving forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of them drowned trying to escape by sea from the choking smoke and flames after becoming trapped on a beach.