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During Pandemic, Heatwave, Fires Torch Greece, Warning Sounded (Pics & Vids)

ATHENS — As firefighters battled more than 100 blazes across Greece in a heatwave that saw temperatures near 116 degrees – during the COVID-19 pandemic tourists arriving – an alarm was given the worst isn't over and that failure to clear wooded areas will see more conflagrations.

Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias warned that “conditions over the next few days and weeks will be even more difficult than they are today,” said Kathimerini, with the New Democracy government deploying an arsenal of firefighters, airplanes and helicopters to beat back the flames.

While wildfires are a common occurrence in Greece, sometimes arson so that developers can later build on burned out land as there's no law against that, this year could be among the worse because of a combination of volatile elements.

Christos Zerefos, General Secretary of the Academy of Athens and Greece’s representative in Europe for climate change, told SKAI TV that bigger fires are expected if the annual August winds blow normally, which, he noted, “fortunately will not blow so much in the coming days.”

“Then the third heatwave will come this year,” he said, noting hundreds of tons of dry flammable wood around the country that governments have let accumulate, along with debris that is unlawfully dumped, seen as a key cause for a massive fire in the norther Athens suburb of Varibobi.

“You will not see this in many other European countries. Fines are needed, legal order is needed,” he said, sounding the alarm: “We are close to a ‘new Varibobi’ with the high temperatures,” he said.

“Forests need diligent work – see what is happening in Switzerland, how the trees are pruned,” he said. “Unfortunately we will learn to live with extreme phenomena,” he said, echoing similar warnings over the years that were ignored.

Unlike the July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people in areas northeast of Athens and nearly destroyed the seaside village of Mati, the toll blamed on the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA's shambolic response, this time there were no deaths and crews were dispatched immediately around the country.

But government officials, said Kathimerini, were still said to be anxious that another heatwave could spark more fires this summer just as the country was seeing an influx of tourists amid fears a resurgence of COVID-19 would see fewer come.

“The difficulties are still ahead of us,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who visited Varibobi, where some 12,500 hectares (30,888 acres) of land was burned and some 100 houses either destroyed or damaged as people quickly fled.

PLAGUE OF MISMANAGEMENT

Efthymis Lekkas, Professor of Natural Disaster management at the University of Athens, partly blamed businesses and homeowners for the scale of the disaster, saying some houses were almost leaning against trees and easily caught fire.

He also said they did not have water tanks and that event venues in the area didn't have fire extinguishing systems. He told the paper it makes no sense for millions of euros to be invested without water tanks in case of a fire so that “everyone waits for the fire department to save them if something happens.”

Elsewhere, there were major fires on the big island of Evia that re-erupted and in the area of Messinia in the Peloponnese, as firefighters were up against a torrent of winds spreading them.

Ministers of Culture Lina Mendoni and Citizens’ Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis traveled to the Peloponnese area of Ilia where a major blaze was threatening the site and museum of Ancient Olympia, home of the first Olympic Games.

“Everything that can be done is being done” to protect the site, Mendoni told reporters as the battle continued, with water-dumping aircraft having to wait until the daylight to resume work.

“The biggest flareup was right behind the International Olympic Academy, but the airplanes, helicopters and fire trucks responded immediately,” Deputy Regional Governor of Ilia, Vassilis Giannopoulos, told the state-run Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) of the response.

The winds later lessened in Messinia in the southwestern Peloponnesei but were expected to pick up again, though there are concerns about a fresh flareup when they pick up again and further hamper the firefighting crews, with state broadcaster ERT saying two two water-dumping helicopters were sent.

In Evia, more villages on the island’s north had to be evacuated when a fire that started Aug. 3 in forestland north of the seaside village of Limni broke up into separate fronts, spreading both further inland and down to the coast.

ANA-MPA said the fire was starting to ebb until early morning winds whipped it up again, spreading flames toward houses in Amelandes. 

That happened as fire crews were brought in from Athens after the Varibobi blaze was brought under control, reports said.

On Evia, the worst-hit area was the seaside village of Rovies, where dozens of residents and tourists and vacationers had to be evacuated by sea, which largely didn't happen at Mati where SYRIZA left it mostly to fishermen to pluck people out of the water to rescue them. 

According to local authorities, more than 150 houses were destroyed or damaged and the scale and number of fires led Greece to ask for help, with France sending 81 firefighters, Sweden deploying two water-dumping aircraft and Cyprus sending firetrucks and firefighters.

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