Greece wildfires: New blazes burning outside of Athens

ATHENS, Greece Aug 16 (AP) — More wildfires broke out Monday in hard-hit Greece, with two blazes fanned by strong winds triggering evacuation alerts for villages southeast and northwest of the Greek capital.

The first blaze, which broke out in the morning in the Keratea region southeast of Athens, quickly burned through shrubland and was heading toward a national park in the Sounion area.

Three communities in the area were ordered evacuated. Some residents desperately hosed down their homes, hoping to save them from the approaching flames, while volunteers armed with hoses and branches joined the battle against the blaze. The fire department sent in 91 firefighters, six water-dropping planes and six helicopters.

Dimitris Loukas, the mayor of the Lavreiotiki region which encompasses the area where the fire broke out, told Greek television that arson was suspected as the cause. He said local residents had reported seeing someone in a car setting a dumpster on fire in the area before driving quickly away. Loukas said authorities were looking into the reports.

On the other side of the capital, to the northwest, another blaze broke out in the Vilia area, triggering an evacuation alert for three other villages. Strong winds were predicted to last until at least the evening, potentially hampering the firefighting effort.

More than 60 firefighters there were being supported by eight water-dropping planes and five helicopters.

Greece has been roiled by hundreds of wildfires this month, with the blazes coming on the heels of the country’s most severe heat wave in decades, which left its forests tinder dry.

Tens of thousands of hectares of forest and farmland have been destroyed, homes and businesses have been burned and thousands of people had to be evacuated by land or by sea. One volunteer firefighter died and four other firefighters have been hospitalized, including two in critical condition with burns.

The fires have stretched Greece’s response capabilities to the limit, leading the government to appeal for international help. About 24 European and Mideast countries sent firefighters, helicopters, planes and vehicles. By Monday most had left, although 40 Austrian firefighters remained in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese, where two major fires have been burning for several days.

Several Mediterranean countries have suffered intense heat and quickly spreading wildfires in recent weeks, including Turkey, where at least 16 people have died, and Italy, which saw several deaths. In Algeria, wildfires in the mountainous Berber region have killed at least 69 people.

Worsening drought and heat have also fueled wildfires this summer in the western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region. In all of Russia, some 15 million acres have burned this year.

Scientists say there is little doubt that climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving more extreme weather events.

Two major fires that began in early August, one on the island of Evia and another in a national park north of Athens, were still smoldering Monday, with firefighters deployed to secure their perimeters.