Greek villagers and firefighters join forces to tackle Evia blaze

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says he ‘fully understands’ pain of those who have lost homes or property

Villagers have joined about 900 firefighters to battle blazes on the Greek island of Evia, despite authorities urging residents to leave.

Locals, often in T-shirts, battled the flames on several fronts, as fires burnt for the eighth day.

“The Greek state must never forget what happened in northern Evia,” said Yiannis Kontzias, the mayor of Istiaia, a town in the north of the island.

“Helicopters helped a lot, and if we had done that since the beginning we would have avoided all this destruction.”

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the fires that have swept through the country as “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions”.

Smoke and ash from Evia, which is close to the mainland, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange.

The fire, which began on August 3, is the most severe of hundreds in the past week that have engulfed forests, homes and businesses, and forced hundreds to flee by sea.

While more than 2,000 people have been removed from Evia, the country’s second-largest island, some have refused to leave.

“Police came and told us to evacuate the village of Avgaria but we cannot - this is our property. We cannot let our homes burn,” said Ioannis Aggelopoulos, 55, who owns a car body repair shop on the island’s northern tip.

“We haven’t slept in three days. We have been sleeping in shifts,” he told Reuters.

The fire service said 873 firefighters, 50 ground teams and 229 vehicles were fighting the blaze on the north of Evia.

They included firefighters from Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Poland. Fourteen helicopters were providing air support, including three from Serbia, two from Switzerland and two from Egypt, the fire department said.

Satellite imagery showed the devastation on Evia, with nearly 50,000 hectares razed.

More than 300 firefighters are tackling blazes in the Peloponnese region, home to many archaeological sites including Ancient Olympia.

On Tuesday, locals in 20 small villages in the region of Gortynia were warned to flee.

“In the blink of an eye, all control was lost,” mayor Efstathios Soulis told state broadcaster ERT.

He said that dozens of villages, agricultural units and businesses were at risk.

“The fire fronts are too many to count,” he said.

Deputy civil protection minister Nikos Hardalias said: “Every lost home is a tragedy, a dagger to the heart.”

Greece has been baked by its worst heatwave in three decades. It sent temperatures up to 45°C and turned its prized pine forests into bone-dry tinderboxes.

In a televised nationwide address, Mr Mitsotakis said the destruction in Evia and elsewhere “blackens everyone’s hearts” and pledged compensation for all affected, as well as a major reforestation and regeneration effort.

He also apologised for “any weaknesses” shown in addressing the emergency, a nod to criticism from some residents and officials who said firefighting efforts and equipment were woefully inadequate.

“These last few days have been among the hardest for our country in decades,” Mr Mitsotakis said.

“We are dealing with a natural disaster of unprecedented dimensions.”

He was expected to chair a Cabinet meeting later in the day and his government was set to announce specific relief measures for those who lost homes, farms and property.

On Monday he approved €500 million ($586m) in aid for Evia and the Attica region around Athens.

With roads on the island cut off by the flames, residents and tourists fled to Evia’s beaches and jetties to be ferried to safety.

“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing!” David Angelou, who had been in the seaside village of Pefki, said on Sunday night after leaving by ferry to the mainland.

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

Mr Mitsotakis said on Monday he fully understood the pain of those who lost homes or property and the anger of those seeking airborne assistance “without knowing whether the firefighting aircraft were operating elsewhere or whether conditions made it impossible for them to fly”.

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

Other big fires were still burning on Monday in the Peloponnese region.

In the past week, hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed or damaged and at least 40,000 hectares have been burnt.

Power cuts on Monday affected at least 17,000 households.

The causes of the blazes have not yet been determined, although several people were arrested on suspicion of arson.

Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into 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 manpower.

On Monday, Greece’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that neighbouring Turkey – Greece’s historic regional rival – would send two firefighting planes because a top envoy had said Turkey’s bushfires “are now under control”.

The ministry also said Russia would send two firefighting planes and two helicopters.

Greek authorities, scarred by a deadly bushfire in 2018 near Athens that killed more than 100 people, have issued dozens of evacuation orders.

The coastguard said 2,770 people were removed by sea from affected areas between July 31 and August 8.

Some residents ignored the orders to try to save their villages, spraying homes with garden hoses and digging firebreaks.

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

“If they had evacuated their villages as the civil protection told them to, everything would have been burnt down – perhaps even two days sooner,” he said.

“Of course, they never saw any water-dropping aircraft. And of course, now the conditions are wrong for them to fly, due to the smoke.”

On Monday, the flames raced across northern Evia, threatening yet more villages.

Six-hundred firefighters struggled to tame the inferno, helped by emergency teams from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, five helicopters and five water-dropping planes.

One volunteer fireman died near Athens last week. Four more were admitted to hospital on Monday, two in critical condition with extensive burns.

Fires were also burning in southern Italy, North Macedonia and Montenegro, where a large fire in the Malo Brdo district of the capital Podgorica came close to houses on Monday.

In Italy, authorities urged the public to be careful with fire amid a heatwave forecast for this week, when many Italians take summer holidays.

Firefighters have been battling blazes in Sardinia, Sicily and Calabria for weeks. Two have died.

“We have faced very difficult and dramatic days fighting fires, and the temperatures that are forecast require the utmost attention,” said Fabrizio Curcio, head of Italy’s Civil Protection agency.

“We are asking the maximum collaboration and caution from citizens … to avoid any behaviour that can set off a fire and to immediately report the smallest blaze.”

In North Macedonia, dozens of bushfires followed the worst heatwave in decades.

At least eight were still burning on Monday, mostly in remote areas where only helicopters and planes could be sent.

Thousands of hectares of forest have been destroyed and authorities have arrested five people on suspicion of arson.

Updated: August 10th 2021, 5:02 PM