Europe

Greece appeals for help as forest blazes force residents to flee

Firefighters, soldiers and local residents carry a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens

Firefighters, soldiers and local residents carry a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Vassilis Triandafyllou and Renee Maltezou

KINETA, Greece (Reuters) – Greece issued an urgent appeal for help to tackle forest fires which raged uncontrolled in several places across the country on Monday, destroying homes, disrupting major transport links and sending people fleeing for their lives.

One person died in a blaze east of Athens, and at least 25 people were injured. Authorities were also investigating reports that up to 10 tourists, possibly Danish, were missing after heading out on a boat to escape.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cut short a visit to Bosnia because of the crisis, which has stretched Greece’s firefighting abilities to full capacity.

“We will do whatever is humanly possible to control it,” said Tsipras. But he hinted that so many fires at once needed further scrutiny.”

“I’m concerned at the simultaneous outbreaks both east and west of Attica,” he said.

Greece said it needed air and land assets from its European Union partners as the Attica region was engulfed in some of the worst fires the country has seen since 2007, when dozens of people died. Cyprus has already offered to send fire engines and personnel.

Fires were raging west of Athens, and in a densely-populated area to its east. In the eastern area of Rafina, some people were stranded on a beach, while boats were picking up individuals who had jumped into the water to protect themselves from the blaze.

Reuters witnesses reported seeing a hillside of homes gutted by flames east of Athens. A local mayor said he saw at least 100 homes burning, and 200 vehicles.

Greek authorities urged residents of a coastal region west of Athens to abandon their homes as a wildfire burned ferociously, closing one of Greece’s busiest motorways, halting train links and sending plumes of smoke over the capital.

The cause is unknown.

A man uses a cloth to protect himself from smoke as wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens

‘JUST LEAVE’

Wildfires are not uncommon in Greece, but a relatively dry winter created tinderbox conditions.

The army was drafted in on Monday afternoon to help fight the blazes. Some flights, mainly landings, were disrupted on Monday afternoon by low visibility and diverted elsewhere, air traffic controllers said.

Authorities were looking for a vessel with up to 10 individuals who had fled the Rafina area on a boat, then called a Danish emergency number for assistance, a coastguard official said. Another 80 people were rescued after being stranded on the water’s edge away from the flames.

Authorities deployed more than 200 firefighters and 60 engines from across Greece to deal with the massive blaze at Kineta, a small resort town about 54 km (35 miles) west of Athens on a route tens of thousands of drivers use daily to reach the Peloponnese.

A senior fire chief went on state TV to appeal to people to leave the area after some tried to stay in their properties.

“People should leave, close up their homes and just leave. People cannot tolerate so much smoke for so many hours,” Achilleas Tzouvaras said. “This is an extreme situation.”

Dozens of homes were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by the blaze. Some householders took up hosepipes to douse the fires while police assisted with the evacuation of some areas.

The main Athens-Corinth motorway, one of two road routes to the Peloponnese peninsula, was shut and train services were canceled.

Raging across land around the Saronicos Gulf, the blaze ravaged tracts of pine forest and was visible for miles. An ominous cloud of black-orange smoke hung over the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon temple in Athens on Monday afternoon.

Live footage showed thick plumes of smoke hanging low over Rafina, an area east of Athens which has a population of at least 20,000.

“I personally saw at least 100 homes in flames,” said Evangelos Bournous, mayor of the Rafina-Pikermi area. “I saw it with my eyes, it is a real total catastrophe.”

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(Additional reporting by Alkis Konstantinidis, writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

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