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Greece Still Burning, Wildfire Consuming Forest Outside Athens

ATHENS – Greece's summer of fires isn't abating after a major conflagration tore through the country's second-biggest island, 69 miles northeast of the capital, with firefighters on Aug. 20 in the fifth day of a battle against a blaze northwest of the city.

It destroyed a huge pine forest and burned homes as crews, including from other countries, worked together to beat it back but were unable to bring it fully under control despite using a bevy of resources.

The fire near the village of Vilia, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Athens, broke out on Aug. 16, one of hundreds of wildfires that have burned across Greece in August, leading Greece to recruit more firefighters from other countries.

Some 461 firefighters, including 143 from Poland, 166 vehicles, four water-dropping planes and four helicopters were fighting the Vilia blaze, the fire department said.

Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said the night before that the “greatest part” of the fire had been contained, but the blaze was still not under control despite the massive effort.

Firefighters had been facing particularly tough conditions, including lack of access roads into the dense forest, high temperatures, dry conditions and constantly changing winds, he said.

A brutal heatwave earlier in the month created tinderbox conditions in forests that haven't been cleared for decades and unlawful dumping there, along with arson, with more than a dozen people arrested for setting blazes.

The blazes have stretched Greece’s firefighting capabilities to the limit, leading the government to appeal for international help, including through a European Union emergency response system. 

About 24 European and Middle Eastern countries responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and hundreds of firefighters after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis admitted there were lapses in responses to earlier fires that would be probed.

Chrisochoidis said Romania had offered to send firefighters with vehicles once more, after the more than 100 who had been operating in Greece earlier this month returned home. 

Greece had accepted the offer “with gratitude,” the minister said. He did not specify how many Romanian firefighters would be involved or when they would be arriving.

Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving more extreme events with world governments decades away from meeting goals constantly pushed back for political reasons, already likely too late to help. 

The Greek government is seeking help from abroad to replace its ground firefighting teams which are at the brink of exhaustion after about three weeks of fighting against massive wildfires that have scorched swathes of forest land around the country since Aug. 3.

Greek firefighters have had to work long shifts in high temperatures and with little sleep for days, assisted by foreign teams that arived to help with the blazes in Evia, around Athens and the Peloponnese too.

As part of the relief, the government has agreed with Poland to retain the firefighters who arrived in Greece on Aug. 9, and has been in contact with other countries for additional ground team assistance.

Mitsotakis thanked his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, for the constant support in firefighting efforts, announcing that the visiting firefighters will remain in Greece for another two weeks.

“The Polish firefighters are doing an amazing job on the ground and we are glad to have them by our side,” he tweeted in gratitude.

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

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