Greek Fires Worst in Country’s History, Europe Since 1900

In this Monday, July 23, 2018 image from video provided by Elia Kallia, people escaping wildfires wade into the waters of the "Silver Coast" beach in Mati, Greece. (Elia Kallia via AP)

ATHENS – While not covering as much ground as the devastating 2007 fires, which mostly roared through swaths of the Peloponnese and killed 84 people, this year’s fires in Greece, which killed at least 92, were the worst in the country’s history and in Europe since 1900, officials said.

That was determined by the number of deaths in a smaller area covering several towns along the seaside, with the resort area of Mati northeast of Athens the hardest hit, 98 percent destroyed at at one spot in a house by the sea, 26 victims found huddled together in death.

Environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace, said the Mati fire was the deadliest in Greece’s history.

The blazes scorched 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares) of forest land and residential areas, they said in a statement, warning of an extension of the high risk season due to climate change.

“This tragic event shows the full inadequacy and ineffectiveness of the current forest protection system,” they said in a statement.

A government spokesman said more than 3,500 homes had been damaged in the deadly blaze and a second fire near Athens, with more than 1,000 of the affected structures considered uninhabitable and slated for demolition.

“The fire burned through 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) in 90 minutes in an area where 20,000 people were present, so in those conditions is was not possible to have a fully organized evacuation effort,” the spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, said, without explaining why there wasn’t an attempt to do so, why they hadn’t been warned and why the fire department wasn’t on alert.

With Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition under constant criticism for its handling of the disaster – while refusing to take any blame – Tzanakopoulos indicated there were shortcomings as he said the government would reorganize the Civil Protection Authority using experts from other European Union countries.

Earlier, Cypriot Christos Stylianides, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, said climate change was one of the reasons for the Greek fires as well as others around Europe but he delicately hinted that the government was at fault too.

“To have so many casualties from a fire of such limited size may indicate shortcomings in prevention and preparedness,” he said in diplomatic language.