“Unprecedented”: a huge forest fire ravages a Greek island

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Firefighters and residents battled Monday night for a seventh day against a massive blaze on Greece’s second-largest island as the nation suffered what the prime minister described as “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions “.

Smoke and ash from Euboea, a rugged island of forests and coves close to the Greek mainland, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange. The blaze, which began on August 3, is the most serious of hundreds last week across Greece, engulfing pristine pine forests as well as homes and businesses and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate quickly through the sea. sea ​​to save their lives.

Greece suffered its worst heat wave in three decades, which spiked temperatures to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and turned its precious pine forests into dry powder magazines.

In a nationally televised speech, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the destruction in Evia and elsewhere “blackens everyone’s hearts” and pledged compensation for all those affected, as well as a huge effort. reforestation and regeneration. He also apologized for “any weakness” shown in handling the emergency, a nod to criticism from some residents and officials who said Greece’s firefighting efforts and equipment were woefully inadequate.

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“The past few days have been among the most difficult for our country in decades,” Mitsotakis said. “We are facing a natural disaster of unprecedented magnitude.”

With the island’s roads cut by flames, residents and tourists alike fled to Evia’s beaches and jetties to be transported to safety by a flotilla of ferries and boats.

“We were completely abandoned. There were no firefighters, there were no vehicles, nothing!” David Angelou, who had visited the seaside village of Pefki, said Sunday evening after his ferry departure for the mainland.

“You could feel the tremendous heat, there was also a lot of smoke. You could see the sun, a red ball, and then nothing else around,” he said.

Mitsotakis said on Monday he “fully understands” the pain of those who have lost their homes or property, and the anger of those seeking airborne assistance “without knowing whether the firefighting planes were operating elsewhere or whether the conditions prevented them from flying “.

But he urged the Greeks to reflect “not only on what was lost, but also on what was saved in an unprecedented natural disaster”.

Other large forest fires were still burning in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece on Monday. Over the past week, hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed or damaged, and at least 40,000 hectares (nearly 100,000 acres) have been set on fire. Monday’s power cuts affected at least 17,000 homes.

The causes of the fires are still undetermined, although several people have been arrested for suspected arson. Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation to determine whether the high number of fires could be linked to criminal activity.

More than 20 countries in Europe and the Middle East have responded to Greece’s call for help, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and labor.

On Monday, the Greek Foreign Ministry tweeted that neighboring Turkey – Greece’s historic regional rival – would send two firefighting planes, as a senior official said the forest fires in Turkey “are now under control “. The ministry also said Russia will send two firefighting planes and two helicopters.

Greek authorities, marked by a deadly 2018 forest fire near Athens that killed more than 100 people, have focused on saving lives, issuing dozens of evacuation orders. The Coast Guard said 2,770 people were evacuated by sea across the country between July 31 and August 8.

Some residents ignored orders to try to save their villages, spraying houses with garden hoses and digging mini firewalls.

“The villagers themselves, along with the firefighters, are doing what they can to save their own villages and those of the neighbors,” said Yiannis Katsikoyiannis, a volunteer from Crete who came to Euboea to help his father save his farm. of horses near Avgaria.

“If they had evacuated their villages, as civil protection had told them, everything would have been set on fire – maybe even two days earlier,” he said. “Of course, they’ve never seen planes to drop water. And of course, now the conditions don’t allow them to fly, because of the smoke.”

On Monday, flames swept through northern Evia, threatening even more villages as 600 firefighters struggled to tame hell, aided by emergency teams from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, 5 helicopters and 5 water jets.

A Greek volunteer firefighter died near Athens last week while four others were in hospital on Monday, two of them in critical condition with severe burns.

Forest fires were also burning in southern Italy, North Macedonia and Montenegro, where a large fire in the Malo Brdo district of the capital Podgorica approached homes on Monday.

In Italy, authorities have urged the public to beware of fires amid a heatwave predicted for this week, as many Italians take summer vacations. For weeks firefighters have been battling fires in Sardinia, Sicily and Calabria, and two have died.

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“We have faced very difficult and dramatic days in the fight against the fires, and the forecast temperatures require the utmost attention,” said Fabrizio Curcio, head of the Italian civil protection agency. “We ask the maximum cooperation and caution from citizens (…) to avoid any behavior that could start a fire and immediately report any fire.”

In North Macedonia, dozens of forest fires followed the worst heat wave in decades. At least eight were still burning on Monday, mostly in remote areas where only helicopters and planes could be deployed. Thousands of hectares of forest were destroyed and authorities arrested five suspected arsonists.

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