By John Hadoulis, AFP/Athens
Hundreds of villagers were evacuated yesterday and the Greek prime minister cancelled a vacation as scores of firefighters battled a major wildfire on the country’s second-largest island of Evia, authorities said.
“Conditions are exceptionally difficult and the state’s first priority is to protect lives,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters outside the fire department’s centre of operations, after cutting short a vacation on his home island of Crete.
Mitsotakis added that four Canadair fire-fighting planes from Croatia and Italy would be deployed today after Greece requested EU assistance.
As night fell, crews fought to protect the villages of Kontodespoti, Makrymalli, Stavros and Platana after clearing them of residents.
“We are fighting against time to contain the fire. It’s very difficult because of strong winds and heavy smoke,” Yiorgos Psathas, head of the local Dirfys-Messapia municipality, told state TV ERT.
“A firefighter was injured after trying to cross the fire on a motorbike, and three cars belonging to campers were burned,” he said.
The fire on Greece’s second largest island after Crete, located northeast of Athens, started near a protected wildlife habitat at about 3am and was quickly spread by strong winds.
Smoke from the fire billowed as far as the capital some 90km away.
Over 200 firefighters were fighting the blaze backed by 75 fire trucks, five water-bombing helicopters and six planes on an 11km front.
The crews faced rugged terrain, violent wind gusts, hills and poor visibility, complicating air operations.
“The flames are 20m to 30m high...You can’t even see the sun,” Panos Agiannitis, a volunteer firefighter at the scene, told Athens municipal radio. “I feared for my life...You could feel the heat 250m away.”
“The only way for this fire to be extinguished is when there’s nothing left to burn,” he said.
The local Panagia Makrymallis monastery was evacuated first as a precaution, TV SKAI said.
The winds blew the smoke from the blazing pine forest north toward the central Magnesia region and south to the Attica peninsula and Athens.
State agency ANA said the pine forests on Evia are part of the “Natura 2000” European network of protected areas and habitats.
Greece has been hit by a spate of wildfires since the weekend, beset by gale-force winds and temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius.
The PM acknowledged that the country’s fire crews had had a gruelling five-day stretch, with the fire department noting that 56 fires had broken out over the past 24 hours alone.
“I am aware that our firefighters, particularly over the last five days, have given their all, they are without sleep and often without food,” Mitsotakis said.
Other fires yesterday were contained on the island of Thassos, the central region of Viotia, and in the Peloponnese region.
On the island of Chios, a fire started by a group of more than 40 migrants seeking to be rescued after crossing the Aegean from Turkey — with one of them drowning in the effort — was also battled.
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