‘Brutal' weather conditions fan flames of deadly fires in Greece

·8 min read

Gusty winds and scorching heat have caused fires in Greece to become erratic to end the week and start the weekend, forcing firefighting crews to retreat and additional evacuations for nearby residents. Fire crews from across Europe and the Mediterranean have been deployed to help control the fires across the country.

Two people were killed by the fires, according to the BBC. One of the fatalities was a volunteer firefighter from Ippokratio Politia who died on Friday after sustaining injuries, a Greek media outlet reported.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, local time, more than 1,000 people on the Euboea Island were evacuated by ferries from seaside towns as fires cut off all other means of escape, NPR reported. Videos show the apocalyptic scenes residents and tourists left behind.

In the Mani region of the Peloponnese Island, East Mani Deputy Mayor Drakoulakou called the fires a "biblical catastrophe" while speaking with reporters and estimates about 70% of the municipality has been destroyed. Drakoulakou and other officials across the country have been pleading for more water-dropping aircraft to help control the flames, NPR reported.

Firefighters in Kryoneri, located to the northwest of Athens, were forced to retreat on Friday as they struggled to slow the advancing flames, local media reported. The fire entered the settlement as firefighters, volunteers and residents evacuated the area after a "titanic" battle from land and air crews.

As evacuations continued into Sunday, the smoke brought poor air quality and hazy skies to nearby towns. The sun on Sunday was shrouded by the smoke on Greece's second-largest island of Evia, which is located about 120 miles (190 km) north of Athens.

People evacuate during a wildfire Pefki village on Evia island, about 189 kilometers (118 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. Pillars of billowing smoke and ash are blocking out the sun above Greece's second-largest island as a days-old wildfire devours pristine forests and triggers more evacuation alerts. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

According to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist John Gresiak, temperatures above 100 F (38 C), relative humidity around 10-15% and winds gusting to 30 mph (48 km/h) created "brutal" conditions for getting fires under control.

A suspicious person on the front line in Kryoneri was brought in for questioning and to confirm if he was there to assist fire crews. The fire brigade and police are on fire alert after finding incendiary devices in Parnitha, a town to the west on the other side of the Varibobi Fire.

Just east of Kryoneri, the Nea Thalpi Nursing Home in Agios Stefanos was evacuated early Friday morning, local time, according to Greek media. Forty-two bedridden residents were taken to nearby hospitals, while others were transferred to hotels or to stay with family members.

Evacuations were issued on Friday in Gythio along the southern coast of the Peloponnese island, as the leading edge of the flames of the fire in Eastern Mani expanded to the coast. Across the country, thousands of people have reportedly been forced to evacuate.

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The Health Center of Mantoudi was forced to evacuate as the Northern Evia fires on the Euboea Island neared the facilities. According to local media, two of the doctors will stay behind to assist the ambulances that remain in a safe location to serve the firefighters. The nearby facilities of Istiaia Health Center and the Edipsos Regional Clinic were put on high alert for potential evacuation.

Ignazio Cassis, vice president of Switzerland, announced on Twitter on Friday that emergency personnel along with three helicopters were being deployed to assist with firefighting efforts in Greece. Israeli Firefighters arrived in Greece on Friday afternoon, local time, to assist the Hellenic Fire Service.

Satellite imagery below shows the intensity of fires across Greece. The Northern Evia Fire on Euboa Island (northeast) is the largest and most intense on the map. The Varibobi Fire (east) can be seen near Athens as well as the fires in Eastern Mani (south).

Travel and visits in forests, national parks and nature areas have been prohibited through at least Monday, Aug. 9, by Greek authorities. In addition, any work that could spark a new fire, oxygen welding or any burning, has also been prohibited through Monday.

Another fire sparked in the Tatoi Forest at the base of Mount Parnitha and quickly spread into the towns of Tatoi and Varibobi, suburbs of Athens, on Tuesday afternoon, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

According to the AP, authorities have announced that more than 100 homes and businesses have sustained major damage or have been destroyed. Of the people who evacuated, more than 500 people spent Tuesday night in hotels being used for shelters. Some residents were rescued by the coast guard after fleeing to a beach in the village of Rovies. The fire spread to houses in Spathari, Greece, on Saturday.

"We are making a titanic effort on many fronts," Civil Protection chief Nikos Hardalias said during an evening briefing Wednesday. "According to our threat forecasts, tomorrow too is expected to be a difficult day ... The toughest part lies ahead of us; the next days and weeks will be even harder. Our key target is to protect human lives."

A statue of goddess Athena is seen as wildfire burns at Varympompi, a suburb north of Athens, Greece, Aug. 3, 2021. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Firefighters used whatever means necessary to battle the blaze. Water was pumped out of a swimming pool, and water-dropping buckets were attached to military helicopters, the AP stated.

This fire also encroached on a palace once owned by Greece's former royal family. While flames damaged parts of the grounds, none of the buildings suffered fire damage, according to the AP.

Residents in the capital city of Athens were warned to close windows and stay indoors as smoke from the nearby wildfires spread into the city, according to CNN. In addition to poor air quality, the smoke also reduced visibility in the city at times.

Over 500 firefighters worked through Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, local time, to try to control the blaze.

"It was another exceptionally difficult night," Hardalias said, according to the AP. He added that firefighters were able to reduce the fire from four active fronts to just one Tuesday night.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said crews did vital work fighting the nightmarish fires. " We had no loss of human life... Homes will be rebuilt, and over time the forest will grow back," he added.

Officials stated that 188 wildfires were reported in a span of just 24 hours across Greece from late Monday to late Tuesday.

According to the AP, the European Union (EU) has pledged to send firefighters and equipment to countries across the southern portion of Europe battling fires, including Greece, Italy, Albania and North Macedonia.

On Wednesday, the Netherlands Ministry of Defense announced that they would send two Chinook transport helicopters to Albania during the second half of the week to help contain ongoing fires.

On Thursday, fires rekindled on the outskirts of Athens as weather conditions worsened, prompting more evacuations in southern Greece, according to the AP. In a battle that spanned all day and all night, firefighters were able to stop a blaze just outside of the birthplace of the Olympics in ancient Greece.

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Wildfires have also been reported across southern Europe, including in Croatia, Albania, Italy and at least 13 fires in Turkey.

Some towns are already beginning to have relief from the fires, including Attica, Greece, where the local fire department said the town is beginning to reopen. Unfortunately, this is not true for all parts of the country, in particular towns of northern Euboea, Greece, were under evacuation orders on Sunday.

The setup that led to the intense heat across southeast Europe included a strong area of high pressure that has remained over the Balkans, allowing a heat dome to form, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Alyssa Smithmyer.

Much of eastern Europe had temperatures average 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit (3-6 degrees Celsius) above normal for the month of July. During this time, parts of southern Greece and southwest Turkey reported no rainfall.

"A deficit in rainfall from dry weather earlier in the summer exacerbated the temperatures further as the dry surface heated up much more easily than what moist soil would," Smithmyer said.

Temperatures in parts of Athens neared 110 F (43 C) on Tuesday. The current record for continental Europe stands at 118.4 F (48 C); that temperature record was set in Athens on July 10, 1997, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Due to the extreme heat, authorities in Greece closed the Acropolis and other ancient sites during afternoon hours, the AP reported. The closures were in effect from noon to 5 p.m., which is typically the hottest part of the day.

According to AccuWeather Meteorologist Rob Richards, the heat will linger across southeastern Europe through Thursday, but temperatures are not expected to be as intense in some areas on Sunday as a front pushes into the region.

"Athens will dip into the middle 90s F (middle 30s C) over the weekend as slightly cooler air settles in behind this front," Richards stated.

However, forecasters say showers and thunderstorms will struggle to spread south into Greece and Turkey, which will provide little help for firefighters battling the flames across the region. A lack of rain and periods of gusty winds can complicate firefighting efforts.

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