Greece wildfires: Fears of more migrant deaths as battle to contain blazes continues

Countries send aid as firefighters battle more than 60 new fires in the past 24 hours

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Greek firefighters were battling many blazes on Wednesday, as residents of Athens woke to the smell of scorched earth while thick black smoke covered the sky.

The fires, burning for a fifth day, ripped through the foothills of Mount Parnitha, the largest forest adjoining the capital, and it is feared the flames could spread to a national park.

More than 200 firefighters backed by volunteers – alongside 65 vehicles and 15 aircraft, some sent from Sweden and Germany – battled the blaze, which began near Fyli and spread towards the town of Menidi.

The capital has been smothered in smoke and ash since the blaze broke out on Tuesday.

Several hundred people have fled their homes since fires erupted in northern Greece on Saturday, fanned by high temperatures and strong winds in the summer's second major outbreak.

“This summer is the worst since meteorological data began to be collected,” said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece's Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister.

Mr Kikilias said 355 wildfires had started since Friday, including 209 in the past 48 hours. Firefighting teams were making “superhuman efforts” to contain them, he said.

The fire brigade warned that more fires could break out and spokesman Ioannis Artopios said conditions remained “difficult and, in several cases, extreme”.

“Unfortunately, the wind does not help at all,” Stathis Topalidis, deputy mayor of Menidi, told state TV channel ERT.

The developments came a day after 18 suspected migrants were found dead in a shack in a forest near the Turkish border, north of the port city of Alexandroupolis. The dead included two children, a police official said.

As no local residents had been reported missing, “the possibility that they are people who entered our country illegally is under investigation”, Mr Artopios said.

Locals on Wednesday said they were expecting more deaths as the area is a major entry point for migrants.

“The places where the fire started in Dadia forest are migrant crossings,” Valantis Gialamas, head of the border guards of Evros prefecture, told reporters.

“At the same time as the fires occurred, there was an increase in immigration flows.

“My personal assessment is that there may be other dead people found when the fire is extinguished and an autopsy is performed.”

Thousands of people in a district of Greece's capital were under evacuation orders on Tuesday as firefighters battled to contain a growing wave of wildfires that have killed at least 20 around the country.

Civil protection ordered the evacuation of Ano Liosia in north-west Athens, a district of more than 25,000 people, while homes were on fire in the neighbouring community of Fyli, AFP reported.

Greek medics rush to evacuate patients on to ferry as wildfire rages near hospital

Greek medics rush to evacuate patients on to ferry as wildfire rages near hospital

Six countries were sending help through the EU's civil protection mechanism, the fire department said, amid gale-force winds and temperatures of up to 41ºC.

“The situation is unprecedented, weather conditions are extreme,” Mr Artopios said.

He said Tuesday's fires “grew to gigantic size” in a short space of time.

Another major fire was still blazing through a landfill site in the industrial zone of Aspropyrgos, west of Athens, covering the area in a noxious black cloud.

In nearby Alexandroupolis, where a blaze broke out near the port city in the north of the country on Saturday, the sky turned bright red as the fire spread, fanned by gale-force winds on Tuesday.

In total, 65 patients at the University Hospital of Alexandroupolis had been evacuated by Tuesday morning. Another 14 were taken to safety by a coastguard vessel from a beach near the village of Makri.

A forest before and after wildfires in Alexandroupolis

Overnight, staff helped a man in a wheelchair into an ambulance while others were carried on stretchers as a fire approached the hospital.

The Adamantios Korais ferry was transformed into a makeshift hospital, where elderly patients lay on mattresses strewn across the cafeteria floor while paramedics attended to others on stretchers and a woman held a man resting on a sofa, an IV drip attached to his hand.

Blazes were also raging on the islands of Evia and Kythnos, the region of Boeotia, north of Athens, and in western Greece.

Another fire that broke out on Tuesday on the island of Samothraki was contained overnight but the island remains without electricity.

More than 40,000 hectares were destroyed in only three days from August 19 to 21, according to a report by the National Observatory of Athens.

The hot and dry conditions that increase the fire risk will persist until Friday, meteorologists said.

Several Mediterranean countries have been hit by heatwaves and wildfires this summer.

Greece, Italy, Algeria and Tunisia lost more than 1,350 square km in total to fires that affected 120,000 people in late July, according to EU estimates released this month.

Updated: August 24, 2023, 7:59 AM