Greece fights wildfires for eighth day as PM pledges relief

Hundreds of firefighters battle blazes on Evia, Greece’s second-largest island, as gov’t faces criticism for response.

A man watches the flames as wildfire approaches Kochyli beach near Limni village on the island of Evia in Greece [Thodoris Nikolaou/AP Photo]

Residents have mounted a round-the-clock watch to try to save their homes from wildfires ravaging the Greek island of Evia as the government promised to help citizens who lost their homes.

Hundreds of Greek fire crews, backed by foreign firefighters and volunteers, battled flare-ups on Greece’s second-largest island, where fires were burning on Tuesday for the eighth day.

Other fronts in the Peloponnese also reignited hours after it was announced to be under control, and authorities ordered the evacuation of some 20 more villages in the region of Arkadia.

The government announced relief measures for those who have lost homes and property as more than 500 fires forced the evacuation of dozens of villages and thousands of people.

On Monday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologised for failures in tackling the wildfires that have burned across the country as authorities began counting the cost in lost homes and livelihoods.

Mitsotakis approved a 500-million-euro ($585.85m) aid budget for Evia and the Attica region around Athens and said all forests destroyed by the fires would be restored.

As part of the relief measures detailed by the government on Tuesday, those affected would receive compensation for the damage to homes or businesses, they would be exempt from property tax and receive rent subsidies.

The prime minister has also pledged hundreds of millions of euros in additional funds for civil protection, reforestation and flood prevention.

Opposition slams government

However, the main political opposition blamed the government for using climate change as an excuse to cover up deficiencies in its handling of the crisis.

“Climate change is, without doubt, an especially dangerous reality. However, it cannot be used as an excuse by the government because it ignored our warnings and those of scientists,” Alexis Tsipras, head of the left-wing SYRIZA party, told reporters.

Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias told reporters the state apparatus did all it could in the face of 586 wildfires in eight days during the worst heatwave in 30 years.

“Do not shoot the fighters in the hour of battle. Every home lost for us is a stab in the heart,” Hardalias said. “The losses we suffered involved fighters, not civilians.”

The flames have killed three in Greece and several people have been injured, some critically. Sixteen people have been arrested on suspicion of arson or negligent arson, the police said.

Sentinel-2 satellite imagery showed swaths of forest scorched by the wildfires in Attica, Evia and the Peloponnese, with the Athens National Observatory estimating that about 65,000 hectares (approximately 160,600 acres) had been burned in total by Sunday.

Lack of aerial support

Much of the attention was focused on Tuesday on keeping the fire out of Evia’s northern hub of Istiaia, where 7,000 residents had yet to evacuate.

Firefighters and volunteers had been engaged overnight in “hand-to-hand combat, fighting heart and soul” to erect fire breaks outside villages Istiaia Mayor Yiannis Kontzias said.

He said “mistakes were made and we need to draw lessons from this,” adding, “The Greek state must never forget what happened in northern Evia.”

“Helicopters helped a lot and if we had done that since the beginning, we would have avoided all this destruction.”

He was echoing a complaint widely heard about the lack of air support not just on Evia, but throughout Greece.

Many mayors around the country have complained of a serious lack of aerial support in fighting the fires, despite government assurances of having set aside ample resources.

The Evia force includes hundreds of firefighters from Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. They were reinforced on Tuesday with units from Cyprus, Slovakia and Poland, the civil protection authority said.

The rugged island is popular with holidaymakers and many Greeks have summer homes on Evia. Some 3,000 people were evacuated by sea this past week as the flames neared.

European Union states and other countries have so far contributed 21 aircraft, 250 vehicles and more than 1,200 firefighters, some of whom were due to arrive by Friday, according to the AFP news agency.

Meanwhile, crews battled two fires on Tuesday in the coastal province of Mugla in the southwest of neighbouring Turkey, including a brush fire near Bodrum’s Gumusluk resort neighbourhood.

Bodrum’s mayor said the fire was close to being extinguished and no residential areas were threatened.

Also in Turkey, firefighters quickly put out a new blaze in a forest in Istanbul’s Sariyer district.

Eight people have been killed in recent fires in Turkey.

Source: News Agencies