VARIBOBI, Greece (AP) – Greece evacuated people in boats from an island beach on Wednesday amid thick smoke from a nearby forest fire and fire crews battled elsewhere to keep the flames away from the birthplace of the ancient Olympics as the country suffocated in a record-breaking heat wave.
With more than 100 forest fires burning in Greece, the European Union has sent aid to Greece and other countries in South East Europe struggling with massive forest fires. The aid came a day after another major fire burned down more than 100 homes and businesses near the Greek capital of Athens.
Civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias said 118 forest fires had broken out in the past 24 hours and warned that even worse days could be expected for struggling fire departments.
“We are making a titanic effort on many fronts,” he said in an evening briefing. “According to our threat forecasts, tomorrow too should be a difficult day … The hardest part awaits us, the next days and weeks will be even more difficult. Our main goal is to protect human life.
Evacuations were taking place in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece due to a major fire near ancient Olympia – where the Olympics were held every four years from 776 BC for over a millennium . The adjacent city of ancient Olympia was evacuated, along with seven other neighboring villages. The region was ravaged by forest fires in 2007 that claimed the lives of dozens of people but spared sports venues and the ruined temples of Olympia.
The mayor of nearby Pirgos said a strong fire-fighting cordon has been placed around the leafy site, one of the most beautiful in a country teeming with antiques.
“I think the security of the site is at a satisfactory level,” said Panagiotis Andonakopoulos.
The coast guard evacuated around 90 people stranded on a beach near the northern village of Rovies on the island of Evia. Private boats assisted in the operation. According to media reports, three firefighters were burned. Several houses were set on fire as well as parts of the forest.
Temperatures in Greece reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, in what authorities described as the worst heat wave since 1987. Neighboring countries face similar conditions, fueling deadly forest fires in Turkey and fires in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean region. Albanian officials said one person died from smoke inhalation near the southern town of Gjirokaster, where forest fires have caused hundreds of residents to flee.
An EU disaster response group said firefighters and water jets were being dispatched by EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.
“To follow the situation with great concern. European solidarity is at work to fight against these terrible fires”, wrote the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a tweet.
The EU’s atmospheric monitoring service said smoke plumes from the region’s forest fires were clearly visible on satellite images, which also showed the intensity of the forest fires in Turkey was at the highest level since the records began in 2003.
Outside Athens, helicopters and low-flying planes dumped water on charred forests around Tatoi, 20 kilometers (12 1/2 miles) north of Athens, where more than 500 firefighters fought all night to contain the blaze that started on Tuesday. At least 80 cars were set on fire.
“Ground crews have done vital work, (fighting) nightmarish fires in suburban forests,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, visiting a mobile control center. “We had no loss of human life. … The houses will be rebuilt and over time the forest will grow back.
Firefighters pumped water from a swimming pool to put out the flames and buckets of water were attached to military helicopters. Authorities said more than 100 homes and businesses were severely damaged or destroyed, and more than 500 people were staying overnight in hotels.
The blaze sent clouds of smoke over the Greek capital, prompting people with breathing difficulties to stay indoors.
It also raged near a large wooded estate and palace that once belonged to the royal family of Greece and is now a public park, but the Greek Ministry of Culture said on Wednesday that Tatoi’s estate had not been damaged.
He said artifacts “of particular historical and artistic value” have been removed from the estate’s storage areas as a precaution. As part of a major restoration program, thousands of artifacts from the ancient palace – including ceremonial cars, luxury cars, antiques, paintings and clothing – have been stored for years on the estate pending their conservation and a future exhibition.
Sporadic power outages have occurred after flames toppled electricity transmission towers, adding further strain to Greece’s overloaded national electricity grid at the height of the key summer tourist season.
The heat wave is expected to hang over Greece and Turkey until the end of the week.
___ Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Elena Becatoros in Argostoli, Greece. contributed.
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