Greek Island Evia Consumed by Runaway Wildfires, Pleas for Help (Pics & Vids)

ATHENS — A massive fire that ate up half of Greece's second biggest island of Evia some 111 kilometers (69 miles) north of the capital Evia was being battled for a seventh day Aug. 10 as legions of firefighters and water-dumping equipment were engaged.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the devastation on the forest-filled island of some 1,417 square miles “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions,” striking during the heart of a recovering tourism season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smoke and ash from Evia, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange, noted Kathimerini in a report on the unrelenting battle against the flames that destroyed homes and spread so fast that more than 1150 people in and around the village of Limni had to be rescued and taken away on a ferry boat.

Greece at one point had been hit by some 586 fires this August, blamed on a combination of tinder box conditions because of a brutal heat wave, arson, accumulated brush that wasn't cleared from woods and unlawful dumping.

Mitsotakis said that his New Democracy government would be the first to bar building on burned land after years of summer blazes had seen developers swoop in to erect homes and profit from disasters.

In a TV address in which he pledged to identify any failures in responses after complaints that some homes and areas were left without protection, despite the overwhelming scale of the fires, he said the loss of property and forest “blackens everyone's hearts.”

“These last few days have been among the hardest for our country in decades,” Mitsotakis said, although wildfires on July 23, 2018 northeast of Athens killed 102 people and nearly wiped out the seaside village of Mati.

The blazes this August saw a volunteer firefighter, hit by a falling pole, the only fatality reported so far. Four other volunteer firefighters were in the hospital, two in critical condition with extensive burns, reports said.

With roads on the island cut off by the flames, residents and tourists fled to Evia’s beaches and jetties to be ferried to safety by a flotilla of ferries and boats.

“We were completely forsaken. There were no fire brigades, there were no vehicles, nothing!” David Angelou, who had been in the seaside village of Pefki, said after leaving by ferry to the mainland.

“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.

Mitsotakis said he “fully understands” the pain of those who lost homes or property, and the anger of those seeking airborne assistance “without knowing whether the firefighting aircraft were operating elsewhere or whether conditions made it impossible for them to fly.”

But he urged Greeks to reflect “not only on what was lost but also on what was saved in such an unprecedented natural disaster.”

Before the Evia blaze, major fires north of Athens and on the Peloponnese region destroyed huge swathes of land and homes and burned at least 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres) although as much as 250,000 hectares (617,763 acres) across the country as they spread despite efforts to contain them.

Greek authorities, scarred by a deadly wildfire in 2018 near Athens that killed more than 100 people, have emphasized saving lives, issuing dozens of evacuation orders. 

The Coast Guard, which wasn't sent in force to Mati to try to save people standing in the sea as the fire roared around them, said 2,770 people had been evacuated by sea across the country between July 31 and Aug. 8.

Some residents ignored the orders to try to save their villages, spraying homes with garden hoses and digging mini firebreaks in a desperate bid to save what they had despite the speed and intensity of the advancing flames.

“The villagers themselves, with the firefighters, are doing what they can to save their own and neighboring villages,” said Yiannis Katsikoyiannis, a volunteer from Crete who came to Evia to help his father save his horse farm near Avgaria.

“If they had evacuated their villages, as the civil protection told them to, everything would have been burnt down – perhaps even two days sooner,” he said. “Of course, they never saw any water-dropping aircraft. And of course now the conditions are wrong for them to fly, due to the smoke.”

The flames kept up on Evia on Aug. 10, threatening more villages even as 600 firefighters struggled to tame the inferno, aided by emergency teams from Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, five helicopters and five water-dropping planes.

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


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