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Society

A Week On, Greece’s Wildfires Rage, Support for Victims Coming

ΑΤΗΕΝS — The worst of wildfires that are still burning across Greece, which hit a seventh day on Aug. 9, had destroyed much of pristine forests on the big island of Evia north of Athens and had residents fleeing and trying to save what they could.

As the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was putting together a package of relief measures for people burned out of their homes, some 300 or more which were lost, fire crews kept battling blazes.

The smoke and ash from the fire on Evia, a rugged island of forests and coves almost touching the Greek mainland, blocked out the sun, turning the sky orange as the blaze rampaged across the northern part of the island.

At one point there were hundreds of fires across the country, most blamed on a combination of a brutal heat wave and failure to clear debris and brush and material tossed in woods by people, but there were a few arrests for suspected arson.

Media reports said lawyers have refused to represent people who will face arson charges and Mitsotakis was the first premier to say that burned out land wouldn't be used to build on as had happened in the past, allowing developers to profit even from fires deemed arson.

Unlike the tragedy of the July 23, 2018 wildfires that scorched northeast of Athens, killing 102 people and almost razing the seaside village of Mati, this time the loss of life was far less, a volunteer firefighter killed when an electricity pole fell on him. 

The heat that reached 116 degrees in some places, turned Greece’s forests, including large areas of easily flammable pine trees, into bone-dry tinderboxes that easily burned fast.

Other big fires have been burning forests and farmland in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese, while a major blaze that burned through homes, businesses and forests on the northern fringes of Athens was on the wane.

Unlike the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA in 2018 which was blamed for a shambolic and failed response to the wildfires, the government deployed its entire arsenal of firefighters, and water-dumping aircraft but still needed to call in reserves from other countries because there were so many fires at once.

Still, the country was so overwhelmed that many residents and local officials said there weren't enough firefighters, and some called Greek TV stations to beg for aid, particularly from water-dropping planes and helicopters.

“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing!” said David Angelou, who had been on Evia in the seaside village of Pefki and left the island by ferry to the mainland harbor of Arkitsa.

"You could feel the enormous heat, there was also a lot of smoke. You could see the sun, a red ball, and then, nothing else around,” he said.

Greece’s Civil Protection chief, Nikos Hardalias, said firefighters have been doing everything they can. A small firefighting plane crashed on the western Greek island of Zakynthos while fighting a smaller fire there.

Residents and firefighters who got there managed to save most of Pefki, on the island’s northern tip, where fast-moving flames entered the outskirts  and destroyed at least one home.

A ferry sent there to rescue people as happened at the village of Limni on the southern part of the island turned into a temporary shelter for those who didn’t have the means to flee to Evia’s main harbor of Aidipsos, or to remain near their homes so they could return and check on them when it was safe.

On the morning of Aug. 9, there were dozens of local residents, many with their pets, sleeping on chairs on the ferry, or on the lounge chairs of Pefki’s pebble beach. Most of the surrounding villages had been left without power and running water due to the fire. 

Mitsotakis was scheduled later in the day to meet reporters to give a report on the fires and the support plans that include assistance for households’ basic needs, suspension of tax obligations and also property tax exemption.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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