Huge force struggling to contain Greek fires

Avgaria (Greece) (AFP) –


Backed by a huge multinational force, Greek firefighters on Tuesday struggled for an eighth day to control wildfires on the island of Evia that have caused massive damage, prompting an apology from the prime minister.

Nearly 900 firefighters, reinforced overnight with fresh arrivals from abroad, were deployed on the country's second largest island as major towns and resorts remained under threat.

Most of the attention was focused on keeping the fire out of the island's northern hub of Istiaia, which has several thousand residents.

Istiaia Mayor Yiannis Kontzias on Tuesday told public television ERT that he was "optimistic" the fire can be prevented reaching his town, now a focal point of southern European fires that have underscored global alarm about climate change.

Unprecedented weather disasters bulked up by climate change have swept the world this summer, with a landmark UN assessment published Monday warning the world is warming even faster than forecasted.

Hundreds of homes have been lost in Evia, greater Athens, the Peloponnese and other parts of Greece in wildfires that have been raging almost without pause since late July, as the region suffers through an intense heatwave.

Hundreds of homes have been lost on the Greek island of Evia
Hundreds of homes have been lost on the Greek island of Evia ANGELOS TZORTZINIS AFP

The fires have claimed three lives in Greece, while blazes in neighbouring Turkey have killed eight.

- 'Hand-to-hand combat' -

Firefighters and volunteers had been engaged overnight in "hand-to-hand combat, fighting heart and soul" to erect fire breaks outside villages neighbouring Istiaia, Kontzias said.

The Evia force includes hundreds of firefighters from Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. They were reinforced on Tuesday with units from Cyprus, Slovakia and Poland, the civil protection authority said.

The island is popular with holidaymakers and many Greeks have summer homes in Evia. Some 3,000 people were evacuated by sea this past week as the flames neared.

Wildfires on Greek island
Wildfires on Greek island Gal ROMA AFP

In the village of Avgaria, many locals have turned out to help the professionals.

"If we don't come, who will?" asked Yiannis, a burly youth in his 20s. "My aunt's house burned down, that of my grandfather almost did too."

The fire has also wrought havoc on the island's agricultural economy that included resin, olives, figs and honey, leaving many local producers despondent.

"The first major heatwave exposed the state's nakedness," main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras told reporters on Tuesday.

Istiaia Mayor Kontzias said "mistakes were made and we need to draw lessons from this".

"The Greek state must never forget what happened in northern Evia," he added. "Helicopters helped a lot and if we had done that since the beginning, we would have avoided all this destruction."

He was echoing a complaint widely uttered about the lack of air support not just on Evia but throughout Greece.

Two Serbian firefighters use a hose to extinguish a smouldering forest fire in the village of Glatsona on Evia island.
Two Serbian firefighters use a hose to extinguish a smouldering forest fire in the village of Glatsona on Evia island. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS AFP

Many mayors around the country have complained of a serious lack of aerial support in fighting the fires, despite the government's assurances of having set aside ample resources earlier this year.

- PM apologises -

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologised to the nation and vowed to punish those responsible.

"I apologise for any shortcomings" in the state response, Mitsotakis said in a televised address on Monday.

The fire on Evia pictured from above
The fire on Evia pictured from above Handout Planet Labs/AFP

"We may have done what was humanly possible, but in many cases it was not enough."

Mitsotakis said more than 580 fires had broken out in recent days around the country, exposing Greece to a "natural fury without precedent".

"Because of the unprecedented heatwave and prolonged drought, (the fires) are hard to extinguish."

The PM has pledged hundreds of millions of euros in additional funds for civil protection, reforestation and flood prevention.

He is chairing a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to finalise support measures, and will address the press on Thursday.

Map of Greece showing the major fires on the island of Evia.
Map of Greece showing the major fires on the island of Evia. Thorsten EBERDING AFP

There was still concern Tuesday about three separate fires in the Peloponnese peninsula, where villages were still without electricity and water, according to local officials.

More than 400 firefighters were active in that area, including reinforcements from the Czech Republic and Britain.

In the foothills of Mount Parnitha north of Athens, local mayor Spyros Vrettos told ERT that at least 80 homes have been completely destroyed, while some 1,500 electricity pillars in the area will also need to be replaced.

A draft United Nations assessment seen exclusively by AFP has warned the Mediterranean is a "climate change hotspot".