‘We fought a great battle’: Greece defends wildfire response

The country’s civil protection chief says it was the fire service’s biggest challenge

As the worst wildfires were being tamed on Tuesday, Greece's civil protection chief defended the firefighting efforts, saying every resource was thrown into what he called the service’s biggest challenge.

Nikos Hardalias said authorities “truly did what was humanly possible” against blazes that destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forest and hundreds of homes, killed a volunteer firefighter and forced more than 60,000 people to flee.

Two other firefighters were in intensive care with severe burns.

“We handled an operationally unique situation, with 586 fires in eight days during the worst weather conditions we’ve seen in 40 years,” Mr Hardalias said.

“Never was there such a combination of adverse factors in the history of the fire service.”

Greece had just experienced its worst heatwave since 1987, which left its forests tinder-dry.

Other nearby countries including Turkey and Italy faced the same searing temperatures and quickly spreading fires.

Worsening drought and heat, both linked to climate change, have fuelled fires this summer in the US West and in Siberia in northern Russia.

Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events.

Researchers can directly link a single event to climate change only through intensive data analysis, but they say such calamities are expected to happen more frequently.

In Greece, the worst blaze still burning on Tuesday was in the northern section of Evia, the country’s second-largest island.

It is linked by a bridge to the mainland north of Athens and is a favourite holiday destination for the Greek capital's residents.

Nearly 900 firefighters, 50 ground teams and more than 200 vehicles were fighting the blaze that broke out August 3, the fire service said.

They included crews from Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Cyprus and Poland, which were part of a huge international response to Greece’s plea for assistance.

Fourteen helicopters provided air support Tuesday on Evia, including three from Serbia, two from Switzerland and two from Egypt.

The fire on Evia, unlike many in the US, was burning in an area in which villages and forests are entwined.

Mr Hardalias said all of the fire fronts on Evia were waning, but firefighters were guarding the perimeter of the blaze, particularly around a cluster of villages that were among the dozens evacuated on the island in recent days.

But heavy smoke from the fires has often reduced visibility to zero, making it too dangerous for water-dropping aircraft to assist ground workers.

EU fire data and satellite imagery showed more than 49,000 hectares have been burnt on Evia, in by far the worst damage from any of the recent fires in Greece.

Several other fires were burning in the country, with the most significant in the southern Peloponnese region, where more evacuations were ordered on Tuesday afternoon.

About 400 firefighters, including teams from the Czech Republic and Britain, battled that blaze, assisted by five helicopters and 23 water-dropping planes from several countries.

A judicial investigation is under way into the causes of the fires, including any links to criminal activity. Several arson suspects have been arrested.

“I don’t know whether there is any organised arson plan. That’s not my job,” Mr Hardalias said.

But it was his “feeling” that at least with the seven or eight fires that broke out in close succession near ancient Olympia could have been arson.

Also on Tuesday, a woman convicted of intentionally starting a fire in an Athens park last week was sentenced to five years in prison.

Residents and local officials on Evia have complained about a lack of water-dropping planes in the early stages. They say that allowed the fire to grow so much that flying became too hazardous.

Mr Hardalias said that when the Evia blaze broke out, authorities were already facing enormous challenges.

A major forest fire was burning through the northern outskirts of Athens, forcing thousands to move to safety.

Another was burning through villages towards Olympia, a hugely important archaeological site in the Peloponnese where the ancient Olympic Games were held for more than 1,000 years.

“Every house lost is a tragedy for all of us. It’s a knife in our heart,” Mr Hardalias said.

He said efforts to contain the fire included great sacrifice from responders.

“All our available forces, ground and airborne, were sent immediately to the fires. Whether we could have done something different remains to be seen.

“But in any case we fought a great battle, and the losses were among those fighting it, not among civilians.”

Greek authorities have put great importance on saving lives, issuing evacuation alerts for dozens of villages and neighbourhoods this summer.

In 2018, a deadly fire that engulfed a seaside settlement near Athens killed more than 100 people, including some who drowned at sea while trying to escape the flames and smoke.

Critics say the government’s focus on evacuating villages prevented villagers with local knowledge from helping firefighters and led to more property destruction.

Greece’s centre-right government has pledged to provide compensation to everyone who suffered loss from the wildfires, and to launch major reforestation to replace the trees that were burnt.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a special Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that owners of destroyed or damaged homes would receive up to €150,000 ($176,000) in state compensation.

Mr Mitsotakis said initial payments would begin next week, while businesses and farmers would also receive support and tax breaks.

In south-west Turkey, crews battled two fires on Tuesday in the coastal province of Mugla, including a brush fire near Bodrum’s Gumusluk resort neighbourhood.

Bodrum’s mayor said the fire was close to being extinguished and no residential areas were threatened.

Meanwhile, firefighters quickly put out a new blaze in a forest in Istanbul’s Sariyer district.

Updated: August 11th 2021, 10:10 AM