ATHENS -- Thousands of people fled their homes north of Athens on Tuesday as a wildfire broke out of the forest and reached residential areas. The hurried evacuations took place just as Greece grappled with its worst heat wave in decades.
The large fire in Varybobi is raging out of control and has destroyed both homes and forestland, while it has approached the city center, the Fire Brigade said on Tuesday evening.
One of the fire's several fronts is threatening the Olympic Village and Thrakomakedones, while firefighters have created a firezone within the Tatoi military camp to prevent the fire's approach there. Residents have been warned to evacuate through text messages by the 112 emergency number.
Evacuations have occurred in Varybobi, Adanes, Mortero and Thrakomakedones, while the Athens-Lamia national highway is shut in both directions at Kapandriti. Sections of Tatoiou and Erythreas highways are also shut down.
Most of the 14 people who had called the police to say they were trapped in the Varybobi fire, which is raging out of control on Tuesday evening, have been safely moved away, said the Police.
Of the 14 calls, only 3 cases are still pending, police said, but there is no immediate danger to them and they can leave their areas on their own.
A group of police officers on motorcycles who had been trapped alongside firefighters also moved away from the fire front safely, added the police.
Meanwhile, an Attica Region official said that some houses and plots of land at Varybobi were burning Tuesday evening, and he said the situation there is critical.
The extreme heat, described by authorities as the worst in Greece since 1987, has strained the national power supply and fueled the wildfires.
Traffic in the Athens-Lamia national highway was shut down again on Tuesday after reopening, due to new developments in the Varybobi.
The sections shut down start at Lykovrisi in the direction toward Lamia, and at Agios Stefanos exit in the direction toward Piraeus.
Meanwhile, police is helping with the evacuations of residents of Varybobi, north of Athens, while Thrakomakedones, in the same suburb of Acharnes is also being evacuated.
The fire has also led to the shutdown of the suburban railroad trains between Athens and Thessaloniki and Athens and Chalkida (Evia) have been suspended due to the conditions created by the fire, TrainOSE said.
Civil Protection has been issuing SMSs through the 112 emergency number to ask residents of nearby towns to seal windows, doors and chimneys to prevent cinders from entering their homes, and to warn them to be on alert for possible developments including evacuation.
Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chryssochoidis and Deputy Civil Protection Minister for Crisis Management Nikos Hardalias are coordinating action, the former in the area by helicopter and the latter through the central Operations Center.
A force of 350 firefighters, 10 mountaineer teams, 70 fire trucks, a mobile operations center, 5 helicopters and 5 airplanes are trying to put the fire out, while volunteers and local administration water trucks have been assisting them.
The wildfire that broke out in a forest in the Varybobi area on Tuesday afternoon spread quickly due to the dry conditions, despite the lack of strong winds and the efforts of fire-fighting forces to contain it quickly.
Many residents near the Tatoi area, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Athens, left their homes in cars and on motorcycles and headed toward the capital as smoke blanketed residential areas.
“It is a large fire and it will take a lot of work to get this under control,” greater Athens regional governor George Patoulis told state-run ERT television.
“People in the area should be on stand-by. We are asking members of the public in the fire-affected areas to keep the windows of their homes closed because the smoke is very dense.”
The fires prompted Greek basketball star Giannis Antetokounmpo to cancel celebrations planned in Athens for the recent NBA championship he won with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We hope there are no victims from these fires, and of course we will postpones today's celebration,” Antetokounmpo wrote in a tweet.
Ευχόμαστε να μην έχουμε θύματα από τη φωτιά.
Εννοείται ότι ακυρώνουμε τη σημερινή γιορτή στα Σεπόλια🙏🏾🙏🏽 Θα ενημερώσουμε για νέα μέρα κ ώρα! 🤎— Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) August 3, 2021
The blaze sent a huge cloud of smoke over Athens and prompted multiple evacuations near Tatoi, 20 kilometers (12 1/2 miles) to the north. Residents left their homes in cars and on motorcycles, heading toward the capital amid a blanket of smoke.
Emergency message to Morteros residents
In an update related to the large fire in Varybobi, Civil Protection issued a warning on Tuesday afternoon to residents of the area of Morteros, north of the Erythrea junction, to "shut chimneys, windows and doors to prevent sparks from entering the building. Remain on lalert and follow the instructions of the authorities. Wildfire in your area."
The message was sent through SMS messages from the 112 emergency number, and follows up on an earlier one warning residents of Varybobi and Kryoneri to do the same.
The Civil Protection service also sent a message earlier in the morning to residents of Varybobi and Kryoneri via the European emergency number 112, advising them that a forest fire was underway in their area and urging them to seal their chimneys, doors and windows to prevent flaming cinders from entering their homes. It also called on them remaining on alert for further instructions from the authorities.
While the lack of strong winds is a positive sign, there have also been a number of explosions whose source has yet to be identified and will be clarified once the fire is under control.
The police have stopped the movement of vehicles on the Tatoiou Road between Kymis Avenue and Erithrea Road, on Erithrea Road between the Varybobi bridge and on Tatoiou from Parnithos Road (Ippokratios Politia).
Five water-dropping planes and five helicopters were involved in the firefighting effort near Athens, including a Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft leased from Russia. The blaze damaged electricity pylons, adding further strain on the electricity network already under pressure due to the widespread use of air conditioning.
The Greek Fire Service maintained an alert for most of the country for Tuesday and Wednesday, while public and some private services shifted operating hours to allow for afternoon closures.