Firefighting plane crashes in Greece as more evacuations ordered

Low-flying aircraft had been dropping water on fires on the island of Evia

A plane fighting wildfires in Greece has crashed. Reuters
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A firefighting plane has crashed in southern Greece as authorities battled blazes across the country during a return of heatwave temperatures.

Both pilots were on Tuesday feared dead in the crash which occurred on the island of Evia, east of Athens.

Footage of the incident in a state television broadcast showed the low-flying Canadair CL-215 aircraft disappearing into a canyon before a fireball was seen moments later.

It had been dropping water on a fire near the town of Karystos when it is believed its wingtip may have caught a tree branch.

The Greek air force said a search and rescue operation was under way but the prospects were not good for the two pilots as the plane had no ejection system.

"A Greek Canadair plane with at least two people on board crashed near Platanisto," fire service spokesman Yannis Artopios said, referring to a village on Evia.

Two helicopters were sent to the scene to carry out a search-and-rescue operation, the air force said.

A third successive heatwave in Greece pushed temperatures back above 40ºC in parts of the country on Tuesday following more night-time evacuations as a result of fires that have raged out of control for days.

More evacuation orders have been issued on the islands of Corfu and Evia, while a blaze on Rhodes continued to move inland, torching mountainous forest areas, including part of a nature reserve.

Earlier on Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told ministers there would be difficult days ahead.

“All of us are standing guard,” he said. “I will state the obvious: in the face of what the entire planet is facing, especially the Mediterranean which is a climate change hot spot, there is no magical defence mechanism, if there was we would have implemented it.”

The EU has sent 500 firefighters, 100 vehicles and seven planes from 10 member states, while Turkey, Israel, Egypt and other countries have also sent help.

“For the 12th day, under extreme conditions of heat and strong winds, we are fighting nonstop on dozens of forest fire fronts. The Greek Fire Service has battled more than 500 fires – more than 50 a day,” said Vassilis Kikilias, the minister for climate crisis and civil protection.

About 20,000 people had to leave homes and hotels in Rhodes at the weekend as the inferno spread and reached resorts on the verdant island's south-east coast, after charring land, killing animals and damaging buildings.

More emergency flights are due to take holidaymakers home.

Crete was put on red alert while fires raged on the island of Corfu, off the west coast of Greece, and Evia.

More than 2,000 holidaymakers had returned home by plane on Monday and tour operators cancelled upcoming trips. Tui dropped flights to Rhodes.

British tourist Jessica Mellor, who is staying in Ixia with her family, told The National the fires in Rhodes went from being 100km from her on Saturday to 30km, carried by strong winds.

“It is worrying for everyone on the island, no matter where you are situated,” she said.

“You can see on the locals' faces, they are all scared. Our hotels and others have taken in loads of tourists.

“They were evacuated from the worst areas. They were forced to leave their luggage and were told that if they do not leave without their cases they will be left on the beach with them.

“We leave shortly, and I've never been so glad to leave an island in my whole life.”

Ian Murison, a businessman from London on holiday in southern Rhodes with his wife and 12-year-old son, described his family’s ordeal as they escaped the fires.

“We saw flames coming over the hills. Our hotel had capacity for 1,200 [people], but there was just one coach waiting,” he said.

“We all just took our cases and started walking. It was about 3km before we got out from underneath the ash cloud.”

The family reached a beach, where they waited in the dark with thousands of others to be evacuated by bus or boat.

“You could see an orange glow in the sky and it got more and more, big balls of fire going into the sky,” he said, describing chaotic scenes as evacuees crowded to board small boats arriving to take them away.

“It didn’t matter if you had children, adults were fighting to get on next,” he said. “It was very, very stressful.”

Rhodes has launched an investigation into the causes of the fires and the preparedness and response of authorities. It said about 10 per cent of the island's land area had burnt.

Tourists are now facing a similar situation in Italy.

On Tuesday, 16 Italian cities were put on red alert because of the high temperatures. These include Palermo and Catania in Sicily, which have suffered cuts to power and water supply because of the heat in recent days.

A wind-fed brush fire has been burning near the Sicilian capital Palermo, and there have been other blazes on the Mediterranean island, including one close to the seaside resort of Cefalu.

There were also wildfires in Calabria, the southern tip of mainland Italy, including in the rugged Aspromonte mountains.

Updated: July 25, 2023, 2:41 PM