Greek PM cancels holiday as major island fire prompts evacuations

John HADOULIS
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Over 200 firefighters have tried to control the blaze alongside water-bombing helicopters and 75 firetrucks

Over 200 firefighters have tried to control the blaze alongside water-bombing helicopters and 75 firetrucks (AFP Photo/ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

Athens (AFP) - Hundreds of villagers were evacuated Tuesday 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 on Wednesday 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 3:00 am (0000 GMT) and was quickly spread by strong winds.

Smoke from the fire billowed as far as the capital some 90 kilometres (55 miles) away.

Over 200 firefighters were fighting the blaze backed by 75 fire trucks, five water-bombing helicopters and six planes on an 11-kilometre front.

The crews faced rugged terrain, violent wind gusts, hills and poor visibility, complicating air operations.

- 'You can't see the sun' -

"The flames are 20-30 metres (65-100 feet) 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 250 metres 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 (104 Fahrenheit).

The PM acknowledged that the country's fire crews had had a grueling 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 on Tuesday 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.

On Monday, a major forest fire threatening homes in Peania, an eastern suburb of Athens, was brought under control. At least two houses were burned but there were no reports of injuries.

On Sunday, a fire on the small island of Elafonissos, in the Peloponnese, was brought under control after a two-day battle.

Two more fires were doused on Saturday in Marathon, close to Mati, the coastal resort where 102 people died last year in Greece's worst fire disaster.