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'The night was hell': Wildfire destroys homes on outskirts of Athens

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By Euronews and AP
A man uses a water hose during a wildfire in Adames area, in northern Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021
A man uses a water hose during a wildfire in Adames area, in northern Athens, Greece, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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Firefighters in Greece raced on Wednesday to fully contain a wildfire on the outskirts of Athens that destroyed or seriously damaged dozens of homes overnight, forced thousands to flee, and threatened a former royal palace.

The country is enduring its worst heatwave in decades, with temperatures expected to reach 45°C in some regions.

The fire services took advantage of cooler morning hours to send low-flying helicopters and planes to dump water on charred forest land around Tatoi, 20 kilometres north of the Greek capital, where more than 500 firefighters had battled through the night to contain the blaze.

"The ground crews did vital work, (fighting) nightmarish fires in suburban forests," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. "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 helicopters provided by the military.

Thanassis Stavrakis/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
A helicopter drops water over a fire in Varibobi area.Thanassis Stavrakis/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

More than 100 homes and businesses had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and over 500 people had spent the night in hotels used as shelters, according to authorities.

Speaking to AFP, local resident Christos Sfetsas described the night as “hell.” He was forced to leave his home in Varympompi in the outskirts of Athens. “Previously, a paradise,” the popular getaway is now “razed” by the fire, said Sfetsas, calling the event a “disaster.”

The fire outside Athens sent clouds of smoke over the city, obscuring visibility and prompting health authorities to issue warnings to people with breathing difficulties to remain indoors.

Sporadic power outages were reported in areas of the city near the fire, after the flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding strain to the overloaded national grid.

Evacuations also continued Wednesday on the island of Evia where a fire threatened homes. Wildfires were ongoing in the southern Peloponnese region as well.

Eighty-one wildfires have been reported around the country in 24 hours from late Monday to late Tuesday, the authorities said.

"It was another exceptionally difficult night," Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias commented while visiting a fire department mobile coordination centre in the area of the fire in the Varibobi and Tatoi suburbs of the Greek capital. He stated that, overnight, firefighters had succeeded in reducing four active fire fronts to just one.

"There is still a lot of work to be done," he added.

The leafy suburbs of Varibobi and Tatoi lie at the foot of Mount Parnitha, next to large forests of mainly pine trees. The fire, which began on Tuesday afternoon inside the forest, quickly raced through the flammable pine and reached the main square of Varibobi.

Thanassis Stavrakis/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
An injured dog walks at a burned Equestrian Club after a wildfire in Varibobi area.Thanassis Stavrakis/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Some nearby residents took to social media to offer shelter for animals affected by the fire.

The heatwave is forecast to continue in Greece until the end of the week. Emergency measures will remain in place throughout, including changes to working hours and services, and heightened fire monitoring.

The government provided hotel rooms for local residents for as long as they are unable to return to their homes.