ATHENS – Shells from houses and cars left behind by flames. Pieces of forest reduced to ashes. Tourists have been evacuated by boat from once idyllic beaches where the air is thick with smoke. As southern Europe grapples with one of its worst heatwaves in decades, deadly wildfires have engulfed parts of the region, bringing a recently reopened tourist industry to a standstill and forcing mass evacuations.
The raging fires displaced residents from their homes in villages on the Greek mainland and islands and in neighboring Turkey, forcing tourists to abandon beach destinations in the region.
The Turkish south coast was ravaged by fires for the ninth day on Thursday, forcing thousands of people to evacuate overnight by land and sea. Video broadcasts on Turkish television showed uncontrollable flames suddenly changing direction amid strong winds, leaving people trapped.
Critics have attacked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the government’s handling of the deadly disaster, with opponents denouncing the lack of air support for the firefighting efforts.
Hundreds of square miles of forest burned down as more than 180 fires blazed across the country. At least eight people died, hundreds were injured and dozens lost their homes.
In Mugla, a Turkish province popular with tourists and full of farmland, residents angry at the uncontrolled fires blocked roads and stopped cars they found suspicious.
“Maybe they burned the forest,” shouted Muharrem Duygu, a Mugla resident who saw a car stop in a video posted on Twitter. “My forest is now on fire.”
Firefighters were able to control a fire at a power plant in Milas after working overnight to save the facility. Trees on the power plant site were burned, but the main site was not seriously damaged, officials said.
In ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games in southern Greece, local authorities and military personnel dug firing lines around the archaeological site to keep the flames at bay while firefighters fought the blazes all night.
In a televised address to the nation on Thursday night, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the fires raging in Greece were “of tremendous magnitude and severity” and called on the public to exercise caution as a record-breaking heat wave had turned the country into a “powder keg”. .”
Responding to fierce criticism of his government’s response to the fires by the political opposition and on social media, Mr Mitsotakis said authorities had done what they could when faced with “a natural phenomenon of such magnitude”. He added: “There will be time for criticism and self-criticism. But not now.”
The Greek government on Thursday stepped up the military’s involvement in fighting the fires. And the country has received support in the form of two fire-fighting planes from Cyprus. Further help will come from France, Romania, Sweden and Switzerland on Friday, Deputy Civil Defense Minister Nikos Hardalias said at a news conference on Thursday evening.
A major fire that broke out north of Athens on Tuesday has destroyed dozens of homes and thousands of hectares of forest. It was partially enclosed, but flared up again later in the day.
Tourists visiting the capital were greeted with a thick smoke screen that hung over the city’s iconic landmarks. A short distance to the north, residents were evicted from their homes. Some tried unsuccessfully to use hoses to keep the flames from engulfing their properties as a fire flared up again on Thursday afternoon north of Athens and quickly spread, leading to more evacuations – including in Malakasa, a state camp from which asylum seekers would be sent to other facilities. be evacuated according to the instructions of the civil protection authorities, according to the Greek Ministry of Migration.
Earlier on Thursday, Vasilis Vathrakoyiannis, a spokesman for the fire service, said 120 fires were raging across the country, with the largest and most concerning in ancient Olympia and on the island of Evia.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Greek coast guard evacuated dozens of people from the island’s coastal town of Rovies after a massive fire moved through a nearby pine forest. Residents of several villages on the island were forced to leave their homes, and local authorities and the military dug firing lines to try to protect a monastery. The local church in the village of Kechries rang its bells early Thursday morning to urge residents to flee.
In photos of the island, the sun was barely visible because of the thick smoke that hung over cliffside houses.
Greek television channels switched video footage of the fires raging in northern Athens, Evia and the Peloponnese peninsula, evoking memories of the summer of 2007 when Greece fought several major fires across the country that killed dozens of people.
While scientists have not yet had time to evaluate the link between the current wave of extreme temperatures and global warming, it fits into a general trend where climate change plays a role in extreme weather in Europe. Research has shown that climate change has been a significant deteriorating factor in major heat waves across Europe in recent summers.
Efthymis Lekkas, a professor of natural disaster management at the University of Athens, warned of “an enduring nightmare in August”, urging authorities to be ready for possible flooding following the destruction of large swathes of forest.
The Greek General Secretariat of Civil Defense warned on Friday of an “extreme” risk of fires as high winds are expected to worsen the situation.
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens and Megan Special message from New York.