Thousands flee homes outside Athens as heat fuels bushfires

Fires are being fanned by strong winds and tinder-dry conditions caused by the heatwave

More than 500 firefighters struggled into the night on Tuesday to contain a large forest fire on the outskirts of Athens, which raced into residential areas, forcing thousands to flee.

It was the worst of 81 fires that broke out in Greece over the past 24 hours during one of the country’s worst heatwaves in decades.

Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said the fire north of Athens was “very dangerous” and had been exacerbated by strong winds and tinder-dry conditions caused by the heatwave.

Five water-dropping planes and nine helicopters resumed work on Wednesday morning and are supporting more than 500 firefighters, soldiers and numerous volunteer groups on the ground.

Mr Hardalias said that firefighters overnight had succeeded in reducing four active fire fronts to one.

“It was another exceptionally difficult night. There is still a lot of work to be done,” he said on Wednesday.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki visited Varibobi in northern Athens on Wednesday. “These fires in urban forests are an absolute nightmare," he said.

No severe injuries were reported although authorities said several buildings were damaged.

“We continue to fight hour by hour with our top priority being to save human lives,” Mr Hardalias said. “We will do so all night," he said on Tuesday.

“These are crucial hours,” Mr Hardalias said. “Our country is undergoing one of the worst heatwaves of the past 40 years.”

The blaze sent a cloud of smoke over Athens, prompting evacuations near Tatoi, 20 kilometres to the north, and forcing the partial closure of Greece’s main north-south motorway.

Residents left their homes in cars and on motorcycles, many clutching pets, heading towards the capital through a blanket of smoke.

As the flames approached their homes, residents were seen running to their cars, faces covered with damp cloths to protect them from the heavy smoke.

One group stopped to help staff from a riding school load their horses into lorries to escape the flames.

Fire crews went from house to house to ensure that evacuation orders were carried out.

Authorities said nobody had been listed as missing, and Greek media said six people required treatment for minor breathing complaints.

As the heatwave scorching the eastern Mediterranean intensified, temperatures reached 42°C in parts of the Greek capital.

The extreme weather fuelled deadly bushfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy, Greece, Albania and across the region.

Mr Hardalias said the temperature had reached up to 45°C in the Tatoi area.

Bushfires also raged in other parts of Greece, prompting the evacuation of villages in Mani and Vassilitsa in the southern Peloponnese region, as well as on the islands of Evia and Kos, authorities said.

Forty fires were raging late on Tuesday.

The fires prompted Greek basketball star Giannis Antetokounmpo to cancel celebrations planned in Athens for the NBA championship he won recently with the Milwaukee Bucks.

“We hope there are no victims from these fires and of course we will postpone today’s celebration,” Antetokounmpo wrote in a tweet.

Earlier, authorities closed the Acropolis and other ancient sites during afternoon hours. The site, which is normally open in the summer from 8am to 8pm, will have reduced hours through Friday, closing between midday and 5pm.

The extreme heat, described by authorities as the worst in Greece since 1987, has strained the national power supply and fuelled the bushfires.

The national grid operator said the power supply to areas of the capital was endangered after part of the transmission system, damaged and threatened by the fires, was shut down.

The planes and helicopters involved in the firefighting effort included a Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft leased from Russia. They ceased operations after dark for safety reasons.

The blaze damaged electricity pylons, putting further strain on an electricity network already under pressure caused by the widespread use of air conditioning.

The Greek Fire Service maintained an alert for most of the country for Tuesday and Wednesday, while public and some private services shifted operating hours to allow for afternoon closures.

Mr Hardalias appealed to the public for high vigilance.

“Because the heatwave will continue in coming days, please avoid any activity that could spark a fire,” he said.

Updated: August 4th 2021, 3:17 PM