People in Athens are being advised to stay indoors while firefighters tackle a raging forest fire on the outskirts of the Greek capital that has forced thousands to flee their homes amid the country’s worst heatwave in decades.
Greece’s fire service said on Wednesday that it hoped to bring the blaze in the Athens suburbs of Varympompi and Tatoi under control “in the coming hours”, with more than 500 firefighters leading efforts.
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They were assisted by nine helicopters, five aircraft, police and the army.
“It was another exceptionally difficult night,” Civil Protection Chief Nikos Hardalias said while visiting a fire department mobile coordination centre in the area on Wednesday.
He said firefighters had reduced four active fire fronts to one overnight, helped by lower winds and humidity, but warned there was “still a lot of work to be done”.
A fire brigade official warned that the blaze, the worst of 81 wildfires that broke out in Greece from late Monday to late Tuesday, was “still raging”.
“Its perimeter is very wide and the heat load is very strong,” Reuters quoted the unnamed official as saying.
Despite sweltering heat and stifling conditions, the national observatory advised people in Athens to keep windows shut and to reduce movement outside because a large cloud of thick smoke containing harmful particles loomed over the capital.
Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi, reporting from the outskirts of Athens, said optimism that the fire could be quelled early on Wednesday was fading as temperatures continued to soar.
“The heatwave is more intense today than it was yesterday, the temperatures are high, the ground is dry and the wind is beginning to pick up again,” he said.
“We are seeing multiple fronts open up … and the fear now is that rekindling is going to get worse.”
Europe is grappling with a summer of extreme weather, from heavy flooding in the north to the severe heatwave that has beset the Mediterranean in recent weeks, fuelling fires across the region.
Tinder-dry conditions caused by the protracted heatwave have sent temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in Athens.
Deadly wildfires have meanwhile gripped Greece’s neighbour, Turkey, for more than a week, killing at least eight people and forcing thousands to evacuate their homes.
Blazes have also broken out in Italy, Spain, North Macedonia and Albania in recent days.
Experts have warned climate change is increasing both the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
The fire near Athens broke out on Tuesday in a large forest of mainly pine trees at the foot of Mount Parnitha.
It raced through the highly flammable pines, spreading to nearby towns and reaching the main square of Varympompi, some 20km (12 miles) north of central Athens.
There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries, though it burned homes, businesses and vehicles.
“Thank God we haven’t had any loss of human life so far,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after he toured the affected area on Wednesday, calling the fire a “nightmare” situation.
The government will provide hotel rooms for evacuees until they are able to return to their homes.
As well as the fire north of Athens, two further forest fires were still burning on Wednesday elsewhere in Greece, on the island of Evia and in the southwestern Peloponnese region.
The fire department said 95 firefighters, two aircraft, four ground teams and 35 vehicles were battling the flames in Evia, while 74 firefighters, three ground teams, 22 vehicles and one helicopter were working in the Messinia area of Peloponnese.
More than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of pine and olive were burned out by a fire that erupted Saturday near the city of Patras, 200km (125 miles) west of Athens. It was brought under control on Monday.