ATHENS, Greece (AP) – More than 600 firefighters, including reinforcements from several European countries and aided by a fleet of seaplanes and helicopters, battled three major wildfires in Greece on Sunday, two of which have been raging for days.
A major blaze in the north-eastern regions of Evros and Alexandroupolis, which is believed to have caused 20 of the 21 wildfire-related deaths in Greece last week, has been burning for a ninth day.
The blaze, in which smaller fires combined into one of the largest single wildfires ever to ravage a European Union country, has decimated vast areas of forest and burned homes on the outskirts of the city of Alexandroupoli.
The fire brigade announced that 295 firefighters, seven airplanes and five helicopters were deployed on Sunday. Evacuation orders have been issued for two villages, one in the Evros region and one in the Rodopi region.
The wildfire has burned 77,000 hectares (297 square miles) of land and created 120 active hotspots, the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service said on Sunday.
Copernicus is the Earth observation component of the EU Space Program and uses satellite imagery to provide map data.
Pope Francis said in his address to the public in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday that he wanted to assure that he was “remembering in prayer the victims of the fires that have been burning in northeastern Greece these days”. He also expressed “supportive closeness” to the Greek people.
Another large forest fire has been raging on the north-western edge of the Greek capital for days, scorching houses and burning down the national park on Mount Parnitha, one of the last green areas near Athens. According to the fire department, 260 firefighters, one plane and three helicopters tried to contain the flames.
A third major forest fire broke out on the Cycladic island of Andros on Saturday and was still burning out of control on Sunday. 73 firefighters, two airplanes and two helicopters put out the fire. Lightning strikes are believed to have started the conflagration.
Greece has been ravaged by dozens of fires every day for the past week as blustery winds and hot, dry summer conditions combined to fuel the blazes and make firefighting more difficult. On Saturday, firefighters battled 122 fires, including 75 that broke out in the 24 hours between Friday night and Saturday night, the fire department said.
With firefighters stretched to the limit, Greece has asked other European countries for help. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus have sent planes while dozens of Romanian, French, Czech, Bulgarian, Albanian, Slovakian and Serbian firefighters are helping on the ground.
Southern European countries, with their hot, dry summers, are particularly prone to wildfires. European Union officials blame climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year on record for wildfires, after 2017.
The causes of the two largest fires in Greece have not yet been clarified. In some smaller fires, officers suspected arson or negligence and several people were arrested.
On Saturday, firefighters arrested two men, one on the island of Euboea and one in the central Greek region of Larissa, for allegedly deliberately setting alight dried grass and vegetation to start wildfires.
Greece usually enacts wildfire prevention regulations from early May to late October to restrict activities such as burning dried vegetation and the use of outdoor barbecue pits.
As of Friday, firefighters have arrested 163 people on suspicion of arson since the start of the fire safety season, government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said, including 118 on charges of negligence and 24 on premeditated arson. Police made another 18 arrests, he said.
Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.