ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Thousands of people fled uncontrollable forest fires in Greece and Turkey on Friday, as a long heat wave turned forests into powder magazines and flames threatened populated areas, electrical installations and historic sites.
On the Greek island of Evia, the coast guard staged a major operation to evacuate hundreds of people by sea, using patrol boats as well as fishing and private boats to rescue residents and vacationers from the encroaching flames during at night and until Friday. Dozens of other villages and neighborhoods were emptied in the southern Peloponnese region and just north of the Greek capital as the fires swept through the pine forests.
“We are talking about the apocalypse, I don’t know how to describe it,” Sotiris Danikas, head of the coastguard for the town of Aidipsos in Evia, told public broadcaster ERT, describing the evacuation by sea. .
Coastguard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told ERT that 653 people were evacuated from the beaches in northeastern Evia after all other means of evacuation were cut off by the fires.
Fires raged in many parts of Greece as the country was ravaged by a prolonged heat wave that raised temperatures to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Thousands of people have fled their homes or vacation homes, while at least 20 people, including four firefighters, have been treated for injuries. Two of the firefighters were in intensive care in Athens, while two others were hospitalized with minor burns, the health ministry said.
In neighboring Turkey, forest fires described as the worst in decades have swept across swathes of the southern coast in the past 10 days, killing eight people.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nearly 20 planes are now battling major fires across Greece. Several European countries are sending or have already sent firefighters, planes, helicopters and vehicles to help.
Although temperatures fell below 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time in nearly 10 days in many parts of Greece, strong winds were forecast Friday afternoon for much of the country, weather conditions that could further hamper firefighting efforts.
“We are going through the 10th day of a major heat wave affecting our entire country, the worst heat wave in terms of intensity and duration in 30 years,” said the fire brigade. General Aristotelis Papadopoulos said.
In Turkey, authorities evacuated six other neighborhoods near the town of Milas in Mugla province on Friday as a windswept forest fire burned about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from a power plant. At least 36,000 people were evacuated to safety in Mugla province alone, officials said.
Meanwhile, several excavators cleared strips of earth to form firewalls in an attempt to prevent the flames from reaching the Yenikoy plant, the second such facility to be threatened by forest fires in the region.
A fire broke through the grounds of the Kemerkoy coal-fired power plant on Wednesday, forcing nearby residents to flee in navy ships and cars. It was contained on Thursday after raging for about 11 hours and officials said the main units at the plant had not been damaged.
The forest fires near the tourist resort of Marmaris, also in Mugla province, were largely contained on Thursday evening, officials said, as at least two fires still burned in Antalya province, another beach vacation destination.
In Greece, firefighters went door to door in areas about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Athens, telling people to evacuate, as helicopters dropped water on towering flames and thick smoke blanketed the area. Authorities sent push alerts to cellphones in the area, urging residents to evacuate.
Constant outbreaks threatening populated areas have hampered the work of hundreds of firefighters.
The fire on Thursday interrupted traffic on the country’s main highway connecting Athens to northern Greece and damaged electrical installations, leading the electricity distribution company to warn of the possibility of gradual blackouts.
In the Drosopigi area, a resident of Giorgos Hatzispiros examined the damage to his house on Friday morning, the first time he saw it after being ordered to evacuate the previous afternoon. Only the charred walls of the single storey house remained, along with her children’s bicycles, somehow unscathed in a storage room. Inside, smoke rose from a still smoking library.
“There is nothing left,” Hatzispiros said. He urged his mother to leave, to spare her the sight of their destroyed house.
In southern Greece, nearly 60 villages and towns were evacuated on Thursday and Friday morning. In addition to Evia, fires were burning in several places in the southern Peloponnese region where a fire was stopped before reaching the monuments of Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.
A summer palace outside of Athens once used by the ancient Greek royal family has also been spared.
The fires also disrupted COVID-19 vaccinations. The health ministry announced the suspension of vaccinations at centers in areas affected by the fires, saying appointments could be postponed when conditions allow.
â€œOur priority is always the protection of human life, followed by the protection of property, the natural environment and critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, achieving all of these goals at the same time is simply impossible, â€Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address Thursday evening.
Forest fires, he said, show “the reality of climate change.”
Hot, dry, gusty weather also fueled devastating California wildfires, decimating entire cities in some cases.
In 2018, more than 100 people died when a rapid forest fire engulfed a seaside settlement east of Athens. Some of them drowned while trying to escape through the sea of â€‹â€‹smothering smoke and flames after being trapped on a beach.
Becatoros reported from Argostoli, Greece, and Fraser from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press journalists Thanassis Stavrakis in Drosopigi, Greece, and Mehmet Guzel in Mugla, Turkey, contributed.