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Greece Overwhelmed by Fires, Minister Defends Combat Plan

ATHENS – With 586 fires at one point – during a brutal heatwave and winds whipping them up – consuming parts of Greece, Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said the New Democracy government did all it could to save lives and protect property.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said there were some lapses that would be investigated, amid reports that not all the military's arsenal of helicopters had been used to dump water on some of the blazes. 

Hardalias said authorities “truly did what was humanly possible” against blazes that destroyed tens of thousands of hectares (acres) of forest and hundreds of homes, killed a volunteer firefighter and forced more than 60,000 people to flee. Two other firefighters were in intensive care with severe burns.

“We handled an operationally unique situation, with 586 fires in eight days during the worst weather conditions we’ve seen in 40 years,” Hardalias told a news conference. 

“Never was there such a combination of adverse factors in the history of the fire service,” he said, although fires in 2007 spread across more of the country and killed 67 people while the July 23, 2018 wildfires northeast of Athens killed 102.

This time, a combination of the heat that reached 116 degrees in some places in the first days of fires that went on more than week, uncleared brush, arson, and unlawful dumping turned forests into kindling for the slightest spark. 

Environmentalists and government officials also said climate change was a factor, noting huge conflagrations in Turkey, Italy, and California and even Siberia in northern Russia. 

The biggest area hit in Greece was on the second-largest island of Evia, northeast of Athens, which is some 1,422 square miles and was nearly cut in half as flames roared through its forests and hills, leading to the rescue of 1,153 people from the village of Limnia, by ferry boat.

Fourteen helicopters provided air support on Evia, including three from Serbia, two from Switzerland and two from Egypt. The wildfire on Evia, unlike many in the United States, was burning in an area in which villages and forests are entwined.

Hardalias said all the fire fronts on Evia were waning, but firefighters were guarding the perimeter of the blaze, particularly around a cluster of villages that were among the dozens evacuated.

But heavy smoke from the fires, reaching thousands of feet into the air and resembling a nuclear bomb mushroom cloud, has often reduced visibility to zero, making it too dangerous for water-dropping aircraft to assist ground forces.

According to EU wildfire data and satellite imagery, more than 49,000 hectares (121,082 acres) were burned on Evia, by far the worst damage from any of the recent fires in Greece.

Several other wildfires were burning in the country, with the most significant in the southern Peloponnese region, where new evacuations were ordered. About 400 firefighters, including teams from the Czech Republic and Britain, battled that blaze, assisted by five helicopters and 23 water-dropping planes from several countries.

A judicial investigation is under way into the causes of the fires, including any links to criminal activity. Several arson suspects have been arrested. There was no indication whether blazes were set in retaliation for Greek police cracking down on violent mob activities.

“I don’t know whether there is any organized arson plan, that’s not my job,” Hardalias told the news conference. But it was his “feeling” that at least with the flames near ancient Olympia, the seven or eight fires that broke out in close succession could be due to arson.

A woman convicted of intentionally starting a fire in an Athens park was sentenced to five years in prison as the government moved to make the crime a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

Residents and local officials on Evia have complained about a lack of water-dropping planes in the early stages that they say left the fire to grow to such proportions that flying became too hazardous.

But Hardalias said when the Evia blaze broke out, firefighters had already been dispatched around the country to other fronts, including north of Athens where smoke from fires covered the capital.

Another blaze at the time was ripping through villages towards ancient Olympia, an invaluable archaeological site in the Peloponnese where the ancient Olympic Games were held for more than 1,000 years.

“Every house lost is a tragedy for all of us. It’s a knife in our heart,” he said, but when pressed about the firefighting response said that “There can be no satisfaction after such a catastrophe. But all our available forces, ground and airborne, were sent immediately to the fires.”

“Whether we could have done something different remains to be seen,” he said. “But in any case, we fought a great battle, and the losses were among those fighting it, not among civilians.”

Greek authorities have emphasized saving lives, issuing evacuation alerts for dozens of villages and neighborhoods this summer, not wanting to repeat the 2018 disaster in which the SYRIZA government had no disaster plan, was accused of a shambolic response and saw officials still being prosecuted for negligence.

Critics say the government’s focus on evacuating villages prevented villagers with local knowledge from helping firefighters and led to more property destruction, although those who stayed behind had put their lives at risk.

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

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