Thousands flee Greece blazes as wildfires sweep through Mediterranean

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Thousands of people fled their homes on the outskirts of Athens on Friday and hundreds were evacuated by boat from the nearby island of Evia as Greece faced a fourth day of wildfires fuelled by strong winds and searing temperatures.

Like elsewhere in Europe, Greece has been grappling with extreme weather this summer and a protracted heatwave – its worst in 30 years – has sparked simultaneous wildfires in several parts of the country.

In neighbouring Turkey, authorities are battling the country’s worst ever wildfires, which forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people including tourists and briefly threatened to engulf a power station. In Italy, hot winds fanned flames on the island of Sicily this week.

On Friday, Athens skies were again clouded by thick smoke from wildfires on the northern outskirts, which burst back into life on Thursday after dying down earlier in the week.

Temperatures have been over 40 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) all week and no let up was expected on Friday with gale force winds expected to spread the flames further. There were power outages in at least two suburbs and on the island of Evia, where winds strengthened.

Coastguard vessels assisted by tourist boats have picked up 631 people since late Thursday from three beaches on the island, where the flames have burned through a vast area of pine forest since Tuesday and reached the sea.

Sea patrols are continuing in case of emergency.

“We are trying, with the means we have, to deal with the biggest catastrophe in Evia in 50 years,” said the island’s deputy governor, George Kelaiditis.

“We are talking about hundreds of damaged houses, hundreds of thousands of acres of burned forest land and crops, which will affect the livelihoods of many.”

Joining firefighters from several countries including France, Cyprus and Sweden, Israel said it was sending a team of 15 firefighters to Greece.

A number of Athens suburbs have been evacuated as the fire burned around the main highway linking the capital to northern Greece and hundreds of firefighters with water-bombing aircraft were trying to prevent the flames reaching the nearby town of Marathon.

So far, at least nine people have been taken to hospital with varying degrees of injury, including two volunteer firefighters treated for burns in intensive care units in Athens, health officials said.

Photo: Smoke and flames rise as a wildfire burns the area of Skepasti in Evia island, eastern coast of Central Greece. EPA-EFE/PANAGIOTIS KOUROS