Stamos Prousalis, Giorgos Moutafis
ATHENS, Aug 7 (Reuters) – Fires blazed uncontrolled for a fifth day in Greece on Saturday, ravaging swathes of land on its second-biggest island of Evia where hundreds of people had to be evacuated by ferry and locals joined firefighters in battling the flames.
A fire which began on Tuesday on the island east of Athens quickly burgeoned into several fronts, ripping through thousands of hectares (acres) of pristine forest in the north, and forcing the evacuation of dozens of villages.
“The situation is very difficult,” Central Greece Governor Fanis Spanos told Skai TV. “The northern front is traversing the island from one side to the other.”
Wildfires have erupted in many parts of the country amid Greece’s worst heatwave in more than 30 years, burning forestland, destroying homes and businesses and killing animals.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called it a “nightmarish summer”, adding the government’s priority “has been, first and foremost, to protect human lives”.
On the outskirts of Athens, strong winds pushed a fire into the town of Thrakomakedones where residents had been ordered to evacuate. The blaze left behind burnt and blackened houses and cars among scorched pine trees. A cloud of smoke hovered over the capital.
“(It’s) really bad,” said Thanasis Kaloudis, a resident of Thrakomakedones. “All of Greece has burned.”
The fire on the foothills of Mount Parnitha north of Athens forced the evacuation of thousands of people since late Thursday. It had receded by Saturday afternoon but winds were forecast to strengthen and there was still a high threat they would flare again.
“Under no circumstances can we be complacent,” Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said during an emergency briefing. “We are fighting a very big battle.”
Dozens of wildfires broke out in the last 24 hours, with the biggest fronts still burning in Evia and areas in the Peloponnese including Arkadia and Ancient Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games.
Neighbouring Turkey is also battling what President Tayyip Erdogan says are the worst wildfires in its history and five fires were still burning there on Saturday.
That number was slightly lower than in recent days. In the Mediterranean resort of Manavgat, where the first fires broke out 10 days ago, rain showers helped firefighters to extinguish the last flames.
Further west in the Aegean province of Mugla, four fires were still blazing as a sustained, dry heatwave continued, while another fire burned inland in Isparta.
Eight people have died in fires that have ravaged Turkey’s southwestern coastal regions, burning tens of thousands of hectares and forcing thousands of residents and tourists to leave homes and hotels.
ESCAPE BY FERRY
Greece has deployed the army to help fight the fires and has received reinforcements from several countries including Cyprus, France and Israel. Germany said it was sending firefighters and vehicles expected to arrive in three to four days.
In dramatic sea rescues, more than 2,000 people, including many elderly residents, have been evacuated by ferries from Evia this week as the skies turned an apocalyptic red.
One man died in Athens on Friday after being injured by electricity pylon and at least nine others have been injured, authorities said.
The government planned to reimburse people affected by the fires and would designate the burned land as areas for reforestation, Mitsotakis said.
Residents in suburbs north of Athens have been forced to leave in a hurry with the few belongings they can take.
“Our business, our home, all of our property is there. I hope they don’t burn,” Yorgos Papaioannou, 26, said on Friday, sitting in a parking lot with his girlfriend as ash fell around them from the smoke-filled sky.
Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Costas Baltas and Alexandros Avramidis in ATHENS, Dominic Evans in ISTANBUL and Paul Carrel in BERLIN; Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Frances Kerry and Christina Fincher