Greece faces 'ecological disaster' from raging wildfires

Forecasts show weeks of scorching summer weather lie ahead

Firefighters from France extinguish a blaze that approached Neochori village in the Peloponnese, Greece, on August 12. Getty
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Hundreds of firefighters on Thursday battled to contain new flare-ups of wildfires in Greece, where summer infernos have caused what Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the country's "greatest ecological disaster in decades".

Rain overnight in some areas and falling temperatures appeared to have eased the situation after two weeks of devastating blazes.

"We can be more optimistic today," Mr Mitsotakis said.

But weeks of scorching summer weather lie ahead.

Greece's most severe heatwave in decades has fanned blazes that have destroyed more than 100,000 hectares of forests and farmland, which is its worst wildfire damage since 2007, the European Forest Fire Information System said on Thursday.

The fires have killed three, left hundreds homeless and forced thousands to flee, while causing economic and environmental devastation.

Greece is just one of several countries in the Mediterranean region that have been hit by a savage fire season, which authorities have blamed on climate change.

"The climate crisis is here ... and it tells us that everything must change," Mr Mitsotakis said, pointing to other devastating fires in Turkey, Italy and Algeria.

"We managed to protect thousands of people but we lost forests and properties."

He pledged to overhaul the country's civil protection authority.

Mr Mitsotakis said 150 homes were destroyed in greater Athens over the past week, while the count was continuing on the island of Evia, which accounts for more than half of the area burnt nationwide.

He has been put on the defensive after his government as recently as June was assuring Greeks that the country was fully prepared for the fire season.

But on Thursday he was forced to admit: "It seemed that this particular phenomenon exceeded our capabilities and the preparations put in place."

Main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras said Mr Mitsotakis had "failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster ... and the scope of his responsibilities".

"The fire fronts are still active" on Evia and in the Arcadia region of the Peloponnese peninsula and "fires are constantly flaring up" in both areas, a fire service official told AFP on Thursday.

In the north of Evia, where hundreds have been moved to safety by boat, 858 firefighters including reinforcements from European countries were battling the flames.

At the height of the fires in early August the flames reached the gates of Athens, which has four million residents, and filled the sky with smoke.

But after weeks of punishing temperatures often well over 40°C, the heat dropped on Thursday.

The falling temperatures and overnight rain in Evia, the Peloponnese and central Greece had helped to improve the situation, said Stathis Koulis, the Mayor of Gortynia.

The village in a mountainous area of Arcadia, 200km west of Athens, has become the primary focus in the Peloponnese, with deep ravines posing a challenge to firefighters.

Twenty villages have been evacuated in the area over the past few days and 680 firefighters, including more than 100 sent from France, and five water-dropping aircraft have been relentlessly battling the flames.

On Evia island, meanwhile, locals have lost their livelihoods.

"I can't take it any more," farmer Kostis Angelou said as he wandered between the corpses of his goats, all 372 of them burnt by a fire that devoured forests.

Mr Angelou, 44, managed to survive by spending hours under an irrigation water pipe, surrounded by flames.

"A saint saved me," he said.

The latest extreme weather events come after a "code red" report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published on Monday, warning that the world is warming far more quickly than previously feared.

The Mediterranean has been singled out as a "climate change hotspot", with increasing temperatures and aridity lengthening fire seasons, according to a draft IPCC assessment reported by AFP.

Algeria announced three days of national mourning starting Thursday for the 69 people killed in blazes there.

In Italy, 48.8°C was registered in Sicily on Wednesday, beating the previous high registered in Greece in 1977 in what is believed to be a European record.

Eight people were killed in fires in Turkey's south earlier in the month, while in the north the death toll rose to 11 on Thursday from flash floods that swept across Black Sea regions.

Updated: August 12, 2021, 10:59 PM