Athens is calling for international aid after the death toll from a series of fires sweeping Greece climbed to 74 on Tuesday with a Red Cross official reporting the discovery of 26 more bodies at a seaside resort.
A local reacts as he stands next to burnt cars following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 24, 2018. (Reuters)
The death toll from Greece’s deadliest wildfires in decades climbed to 74 Tuesday as rescue crews searched on land and sea for those who sought to escape the blazes that engulfed popular summer resort spots near Athens.
The number of victims appeared set to go even higher, with crews checking charred homes and vehicles and the coast guard scouring beaches and deeper waters. There was no definitive count of the missing.
Fueled by 80 kph (50 mph) winds that frequently changed direction, the fires ‚one to the west of Athens near the town of Kineta and another to the northeast near the port of Rafina, spread at speeds that surprised many, trapping hundreds on beaches and cutting off escape routes.
The death toll soared on Tuesday morning with a Red Cross official reporting the discovery of 26 bodies in the courtyard of a villa at the seaside resort of Mati.
The bodies were entwined and severely burnt, an AFP photographer at the scene said. They appeared to have been caught by the flames trying to reach the sea.
The blaze broke out Monday afternoon during a hot, dry spell but the cause was not immediately clear. Aerial photos showed charred swathes of forest and homes.
Although it had abated by Tuesday afternoon, the blaze was far from extinguished and more than 230 firefighters were still trying to put it out, helped by volunteers and water-dropping aircraft. Another five fires continued to burn, with flare-ups reported in the blaze near Kineta. Authorities ordered the evacuation of some communities as a preventive measure.
Authorities urged the public to contact them about the missing. Many took to social media, posting photos and what was believed to be their last location before the fires hit.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared three days of national mourning. Apart from the dead, which included children, hospitals treated 187 people, most for burns, with 10 listed in serious condition.
Hundreds of homes and cars were believed to have been burned. Many vehicles were found with the keys still in the ignition and doors open, a sign of the urgency with which their occupants sought to flee the flames. Narrow roads quickly became jammed, forcing many to try to escape on foot. The ferocity of the fire melted cars’ metal hub caps.
Many ran to beaches, but even there the fire got so close and the smoke was so thick that dozens swam out to sea despite the rough weather.
Coast guard and private boats picked up more than 700 survivors from beaches and the sea ‚Äî but also recovered six bodies.
Rafina Mayor Evangelos Bournous said his home had burned down and his family escaped by going into the sea.
The speed of the fires caught many by surprise.
“Everything happened in seconds,” said Andreaas Passios, who lives next to the compound in Mati where the 26 bodies were found. “I grabbed a beach towel. It saved my life. I soaked it, grabbed my wife and we ran to the sea.”
Passios said he and his wife stayed by the sea for two hours.
“It was unbelievable. Gas canisters were exploding. Burning pine cones were flying everywhere,” he said.
TRT World speaks to Reuters Bureau Chief for Greece and Cyprus Michele Kambas.
Greece sought help in fighting the fires from the European Union. Spain sent two firefighting aircraft, while Cyprus sent in 60 firefighters. Israel, Turkey, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy and Germany also offered assistance.
Over the two days, 47 brush and forest fires broke out across Greece, with most of them quickly extinguished, the fire department said.
Heavy rain was forecast Wednesday across southern Greece, and there was hope that could help firefighters.
Forest fires are common during Greece’s hot, dry summers and temperatures recently reached up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
In 2007, more than 60 people were killed when huge fires swept across the southern Peloponnese region.
TRT World’sSenior ProducerChristine Pirovolakis has the latest.
Sweden battles 27 fires
In recent days, wildfires have also caused widespread damage in northern Europe.
Sweden is experiencing an unprecedented drought and the highest temperatures in a century.
On Monday, the Nordic nation’s civil protection agency MSB said there were 27 active fires across the country, as temperatures were expected to soar as high as 35 Celsius this week.
Several European countries including France, Italy and Germany have sent planes, trucks and firefighters to help tackle the blazes in Sweden, where usual summer temperatures are closer to 23 Celsius.
Some 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of land have already gone up in smoke or continues to burn an area twice the size of the city of Paris.
At least four of the fires had not been brought under control, MSB said, and weather conditions were unfavourable.
Soldiers fall back as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018 (Reuters)
No rain since May
There has been practically no rain since the beginning of May in Sweden.
The Forestry Bureau said Monday put the value of the destroyed forests at $102 million (900 million kronor).
Meanwhile, in Finland’s northernmost Lapland province, fires have ravaged woods and grassland close to the border with Russia.
Norway, which experienced its hottest May temperatures on record, has also seen several small fires, and one firefighter was killed on July 15 trying to contain a blaze.
Fires have raged for five days in Latvia, destroying more than 800 hectares in the Baltic state’s western regions.