Greece is facing a severe wildfire crisis as more than 600 firefighters, supported by water-dropping aircraft and reinforcements from several European countries, are struggling to contain three major blazes that have been burning for days. The fires have scorched vast areas of land, destroyed homes and claimed at least 21 lives.
A massive fire in the north-east
The most devastating fire has been raging for nine days in the north-eastern regions of Evros and Alexandroupolis, where it is believed to have caused the deaths of 20 people. The blaze, one of the largest single wildfires ever to have struck a European Union country, has burned through 77,000 hectares (297 square miles) of forest and farmland and reached the outskirts of the city of Alexandroupolis.
On Sunday, 295 firefighters, seven planes and five helicopters were battling the flames, which were creating new fire fronts and triggering evacuation orders for some villages. The fire department said it was facing “extremely difficult” conditions due to strong winds, high temperatures and dry vegetation.
The European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service, which uses satellite imagery to provide mapping data, said the fire had 120 active hotspots and was emitting large amounts of smoke that could pose a health risk.
A blaze near Athens
Another major wildfire has been blazing for days on the north-western fringes of the Greek capital, Athens, scorching homes and burning into the national park on Mount Parnitha, one of the last green areas near the city. The fire department said 260 firefighters, one plane and three helicopters were trying to tame the flames, which were threatening residential areas and power lines .
The fire has already damaged part of the park’s rich biodiversity, which includes rare plants and animals such as deer, foxes and eagles. The park is also home to a historic casino that was destroyed by a previous fire in 2007 .
A new fire on an island
A third major wildfire started on Saturday on the Cycladic island of Andros and was still burning out of control on Sunday, with 73 firefighters, two planes and two helicopters dousing the blaze. The fire department said lightning strikes were suspected of having sparked the fire, which was spreading rapidly across the island’s mountainous terrain .
The fire has forced the evacuation of several villages and threatened archaeological sites, such as the ancient town of Paleopolis and the sanctuary of Dionysus. The island’s mayor, Theodosis Sousoudis, said the situation was “very critical” and appealed for more help from the central government .
A plea for help
Greece has been plagued by daily outbreaks of dozens of fires over the past week as gale-force winds and hot, dry summer conditions combined to whip up flames and hamper firefighting efforts. On Saturday alone, firefighters tackled 122 blazes, including 75 that broke out in a span of 24 hours.
With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece has called for help from other European countries. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus have sent aircraft, while dozens of firefighters from Romania, France, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Albania, Slovakia and Serbia are helping on the ground.
Pope Francis also expressed his solidarity with the Greek people on Sunday, saying he was praying for the victims of the fires and those who were suffering from the heat wave .
With their hot, dry summers, southern European countries are particularly prone to wildfires. European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017 .