Greek Villages Evacuated as Wildfires Threaten Ancient Sites
ATHENS – As southern Europe grapples with one of its worst heat waves in decades, deadly forest fires have engulfed parts of the region, halting tourism and forcing mass evacuations.
The raging fires have seen the region’s seaside tourist destinations abandoned as the fires have forced residents of villages on the Greek islands and the mainland, destroyed swathes of forest and homes in Turkey and resulted in days of dramatic rescues in Italy.
The Greek government on Thursday stepped up the military’s involvement in fighting the wildfires as dozens of fires continued to burn across the country, fueled by a record-breaking heat wave that hit the region.
In ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, local authorities and army personnel dug lines of fire around the archaeological site to keep the flames out, as firefighters battled the fires overnight.
“We will fight all day,” said Michalis Chrysochoidis, the Minister of Public Order, during a visit Thursday to the former UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although scientists have yet to have time to assess the link between the current wave of extreme temperatures and global warming, it fits a global trend that has seen climate change play a role in extreme weather conditions in Europe. Research has shown that for large heat waves across Europe in recent summers, climate change has been a significant aggravating factor.
A large fire that started north of Athens on Tuesday – and destroyed dozens of homes and hundreds of acres of forest – was partially extinguished on Thursday, but firefighters remained at the scene as small fronts reignited, according to Vasilis Vathrakoyiannis, a fire department spokesperson.
He said 120 fires were burning across the country on Thursday, the largest and most worrying on the island of Evia and ancient Olympia.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Greek Coast Guard evacuated dozens of people from the seaside village of Rovies on the island after a massive fire spread through a nearby pine forest.
Residents of at least 12 villages on the island were forced to abandon their homes on Wednesday, and local authorities and the military dug lines of fire in an attempt to protect a monastery. The local church in the village of Kechries rang its bells early Thursday morning to urge its residents to flee.
Residents of Athens were ordered to stay indoors on Thursday as a thick blanket of smoke from the blaze north of the capital hung over the city. A video released by the Athens National Observatory showed the extent of the devastation caused by the fire, with buildings and cars ravaged by the flames. Sections of forest were blanketed in ghostly white, with once-green leaves reduced to a thick pile of ash.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is due to visit Thursday in the region of the Peloponnese peninsula which was ravaged in 2007 by fires that killed more than 60 people.
Earlier today, Mitsotakis met with defense and military officials and announced his intention to step up military involvement in fire preparedness and response in the coming days as the drought and high temperatures will continue to increase the risk of fire.
Efthymis Lekkas, professor of natural disaster management at the University of Athens, warned of “a lingering nightmare in August” and urged authorities to prepare for possible flooding after the destruction of large swathes of forest .
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