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‘Bleak reality’: Greece wildfires kill 20 with dozens of firefighters injured

Flames burn a forest during a wildfire in Avantas, near Alexandroupolis, Greece, 21 August 2023.
Flames burn a forest during a wildfire in Avantas, near Alexandroupolis, Greece, 21 August 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Achilleas Chiras
Copyright AP Photo/Achilleas Chiras
By Euronews Green with AP
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Europe’s summer fires have removed wooded areas capable of absorbing 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

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Wildfires in Greece are raging for the sixth day, with 20 lives lost so far. Yesterday firefighters were battling 99 separate fires, contending with strong winds and temperatures up to 41C.

Eighteen of those who have died, including two boys aged between 10 and 15, are believed to be migrants who crossed the nearby border with Turkey. Their bodies were found by firefighters near a shack in a burnt forest area in northeastern Greece.

Fires on the outskirts of Athens have shrouded the capital in smoke and prompted evacuation orders, including in the northwest district of Ano Liosia.

Sixty firefighters have been injured battling the flames, fire department spokesman Ioannis Artopios said today.

European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.

“We must urgently take effective initiatives to ensure that this bleak reality does not become the new normality,” said Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou in a statement.

The environmental impact of Europe’s record wildfire season

According to the Italian Society of Environmental Geology (SIGEA), more than 1,100 fires in Europe this summer have consumed 2,842 square kilometres, well above an average of 724 fires a year recorded from 2006-2022.

The fires have removed wooded areas capable of absorbing 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

“When we add the fires in Canada, the United States, Africa, Asia and Australia to those in Europe, it seems that the situation is getting worse every year,″ says SIGEA president Antonello Fiore.

The fires in Greece have killed 20 people this week in the second major outbreak of the summer. They are also devastating wildlife and ecosystems.

“[Animals’] existence is being threatened as nests are destroyed and finding food in a burnt forest is almost impossible,” says the Hellenic Red Cross.

The biggest threat to domestic animals is “their abandonment in houses or [being] tied up during the evacuation of residents from the fire-affected zones,” they add.

The organisation has been carrying out continuous patrols in abandoned houses and has rescued dozens of animals during the precautionary evacuations.

Hellenic Red Cross (HRC)
A puppy rescued by the Hellenic Red Cross (HRC) during Greece's wildfires.Hellenic Red Cross (HRC)

Where are the fires in Greece?

In the northeastern Evros border region, a fire was burning through forest in a protected national park, with satellite imagery showing smoke blanketing much of northern and western Greece.

New fires broke out in several parts of the country on Tuesday, including in woodland northwest of Athens and an industrial area on the capital's western fringes.

Small explosions echoed from the industrial area of Aspropyrgos as flames reached warehouses and factories. Authorities shut down a highway and ordered the evacuation of nearby settlements.

The fire risk level for several regions, including the wider Athens area, was listed as ‘extreme’ for a second day on Tuesday. Authorities banned public access to mountains and forests in those regions until at least Wednesday morning and ordered military patrols.

The fire service said it was investigating the causes of the blazes, in coordination with the police and secret service. In recent days, several people have been arrested or fined for accidentally starting fires.

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AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
Flames burn a forest during a wildfire on Parnitha mountain near Hasia suburb, northwestern Athens, 22 August 2023.AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Greece calls on EU countries for help fighting blazes

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece has asked other European countries for assistance.

Five water-dropping planes from Croatia, Germany and Sweden, and a helicopter, 58 firefighters and nine water tanks from the Czech Republic flew to Greece on Tuesday, while 56 Romanian firefighters and two aircraft from Cyprus arrived on Monday. French firefighters helped tackle a blaze on the island of Evia on Monday.

“We are mobilising actually almost one-third of the aircraft we have in the rescEU fleet,” said EU spokesman Balazs Ujvari.

Greece issues evacuation orders and alerts in fire affected areas

Greece's deadliest wildfire killed 104 people in 2018, at a seaside resort near Athens that residents had not been warned to evacuate. Authorities have since erred on the side of caution, issuing swift mass evacuation orders whenever inhabited areas are threatened.

On Tuesday, firefighters found the burnt bodies of 18 people believed to have been migrants who had crossed the Turkish border near the city of Alexandroupolis.

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Avantas, where the bodies were found, had been under evacuation orders, with push alerts in Greek and English sent to all mobile phones in the region.

Overnight, a massive wall of flames raced through forests toward Alexandroupolis, prompting authorities to evacuate eight more villages and the city’s hospital as flames reddened the sky.

The coast guard said patrol boats and private vessels evacuated an additional 40 people by sea from beaches near Alexandroupolis.

On Monday, two people died and two firefighters were injured in separate fires in northern and central Greece.

Last month, a wildfire on the island of Rhodes forced the evacuation of some 20,000 tourists. Days later, two air force pilots were killed when their water-dropping plane crashed while diving low to tackle a blaze on Evia.

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Spain and Italy are also battling blazes

AP Photo/Arturo Rodriguez
Local residents try to reach their houses in Benijos village as police block the area as fire advances in La Orotava in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, 19 August 2023.AP Photo/Arturo Rodriguez

Another major blaze has been burning across Tenerife in Spain's Canary Islands for a week, although no injuries or damage to homes were reported.

Firefighters battled to control the wildfire on the popular Canary Islands tourist destination. It is estimated that the blaze, which has scorched 150 square kilometres, has already burnt a third of Tenerife’s woodlands.

More than 12,000 people were evacuated during the past week. Authorities said on Tuesday that 1,500 have been able to return to their homes. They have described the fire as the worst in decades on the Atlantic archipelago.

Large parts of Spain were under alert for wildfires as temperatures exceeded 38 degrees Celsius. While Spain’s south often has extremely high temperatures, the country's weather agency issued an alert for the northern Basque Country, where temperatures were forecast to reach 42 degrees Celsius on Wednesday.

In Italy, authorities evacuated 700 people from homes and a campsite on the Tuscan island of Elba after a fire broke out late Monday, while in Turkey authorities evacuated nine villages in the northwestern Canakkale province. Turkish media also said that authorities reduced maritime traffic in the Dardanelles Strait in case firefighting vessels need to be deployed to the area.

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