ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Firefighters and local residents battled a massive forest fire on Greece’s second largest island for a seventh day on Monday, fighting to save as much as possible from the flames that are decimating large swaths of pristine forest, homes and businesses destroyed and sent thousands to flee.
The smoke and ashes of the fire on Evia, a rugged island of forests and bays that almost touches mainland Greece, darkened the sun and turned the sky orange as the flames raged across the northern part of the island.
The fire, which began on August 3, is the worst of dozen to break out across Greece in the past week after the country was battered by the worst heat wave in three decades, which pushed temperatures to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit .) let rise) for days. The heat of a particularly hot summer has turned Greece’s forests, including large areas of flammable pine trees, into bone-dry tinder boxes.
Other major fires burned forests and farmland in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece, while a major fire that penetrated the northern suburbs of Athens and Parnitha National Park on the outskirts of the capital had subsided. Extinguishing work in Parnitha continued, where French, Israeli and Cypriot firefighters helped their Greek colleagues.
The forest fires have pushed Greece’s fire-fighting capabilities to the limit and the government has asked for help from abroad. More than 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East have responded, dispatching planes, helicopters, vehicles and workers.
On Monday, the Greek Foreign Ministry tweeted that neighboring Turkey – Greece’s historic regional rival, with whom relations are currently strained – will be dispatching two fire-fighting planes. The promise was made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who told his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in a telephone conversation that the forest fires that had raged in Turkey for days were “now under control”.
Dendias also tweeted on Monday that he had spoken to his Russian counterpart and asked if Russia could send a second Beriev Be-200 fire engine to Greece. Greece has so far leased such an aircraft, the largest in the Greek fires.
Despite the help, many residents and local officials complained about the shortage of firefighters, and some called Greek TV stations to ask for help, particularly from water splashers and helicopters.
“We were completely abandoned. There were no fire departments, no vehicles, nothing! ”David Angelou, who had been on Evia in the coastal town of Pefki, said on Sunday evening after leaving the island by ferry to the mainland port of Arkitsa.
“You could feel the enormous heat, there was also a lot of smoke. You could see the sun, a red ball and then nothing else, ”he said.
The Greek authorities, drawn by deadly wildfire near Athens in 2018 that killed more than 100 people, have stressed saving lives in their extinguishing efforts, sending dozens of evacuation orders for inhabited areas and flotillas of coast guards – and to organize naval ships, ferries and other boats to evacuate people from coastal areas if necessary. The Coast Guard said a total of 2,770 people were evacuated by sea from fires across the country between July 31 and August 8.
Some of those who died in the 2018 fire in Mati drowned trying to escape at sea after being trapped on the beach.
However, some people, including local officials in the affected areas, have argued that evacuation orders came too early, saying residents could provide valuable assistance to the scarce fire department resources in saving villages.
On Monday the flames continued in North Evia and threatened even more villages. Satellite imagery from the European Union’s Earth Observation Program showed that large parts of the island were charred and the fire spread through it from coast to coast.
Greek civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias has emphasized that the firefighters are doing everything they can. Firefighters from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia have been sent to Evia, where more than 600 firefighters as well as five helicopters and five water cannons are in action, the fire department said on Monday.
A volunteer firefighter died last week after being hit by a falling power pole at the fire site north of Athens while four others were hospitalized in the Greek capital, two of them in critical condition with severe burns.
Forest fires also burned in southern Italy, North Macedonia and Montenegro, where a major fire in the Malo Brdo district of the capital Podgorica hit houses.
In North Macedonia, dozens of forest fires followed a heat wave that recorded the highest temperatures in decades. At least eight fires still burned on Monday, mostly in remote areas where only helicopters and planes could be used to fight. Thousands of hectares of pine, beech and oak forests have been decimated. Five men were arrested on suspicion of arson.
Associated press journalists Iliana Mier in Arkitsa, Greece, Nicolae Dumitrache in Pefki, Greece, Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey, Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, and Predrag Milic in Podgorica, Montenegro contributed to this report.