Forest fire in Greece threatens Olympics birthplace

Archaeological site in southern Peloponnese region at threat as blazes fuelled by heatwave grip the Mediterranean.

Olympia is where the ancient Olympics were held every four years from 776 BC for more than a millennium [Giannis Spyrounis/ via AP]

A forest fire in Greece has threatened the archaeological site at the birthplace of the modern Olympics amid the protracted European heatwave.

Firefighters waged “an all-night battle” overnight on Wednesday to protect the site from fire in the southern Peloponnese region near ancient Olympia, said Citizens Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis.

“We will continue the battle all day in order to contain all the fronts and extinguish the fire. The conditions are difficult,” Chrisochoidis said on Thursday.

The site is where the Olympics were held every four years from 776 BC for more than a millennium.

Regional Governor Nektarios Farmakis told state television it had been “saved for the time being”, but warned the danger was “not over”.

He hoped the fire would be brought under control with helicopters and firefighting planes.

In 2007, the same area was ravaged by wildfires that killed dozens of people but spared Olympia’s ruined sports venues and temples.

The fire department said 174 firefighters, nine ground teams, 52 vehicles, two water-dropping planes and four helicopters were tackling the fire, which broke out on Wednesday.

Described as Greece’s worst heatwave since 1987, the extreme weather phenomenon has baked the country for more than a week and is forecast to last until at least Sunday.

It has sent temperatures spiralling to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and created tinder-dry conditions in shrub-land and forests.

Wildfires scorch Turkey

Neighbouring countries face similar conditions, fuelling deadly and widespread wildfires in Turkey and blazes in Italy and across the Mediterranean region.

Officials in Albania said at least one person died of smoke inhalation near the southern city of Gjirokaster.

In Turkey, a wildfire that reached the compound of a coal-fuelled power plant in the southwest, forcing residents to flee in boats and cars, was contained on Thursday after raging for some 11 hours.

But others continued to burn.

Turkey’s worst wildfires in decades have burned for nine days amid scorching heat, low humidity and constantly shifting strong winds. The fires have so far killed at least eight people and countless animals.

A European Union disaster response group said firefighters and water-dropping planes were being sent from EU members to Italy, Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.

The EU Atmosphere Monitoring Service said smoke plumes from the region’s wildfires were clearly visible in satellite images, which also showed that the intensity of the Turkish wildfires was at the highest level since records started in 2003.

Experts have warned climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the region.

Greek military expands efforts

Greece saw more than 100 wildfires break out over 24 hours from late Tuesday to late Wednesday.

Defence Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos said on Thursday the armed forces would expand their role, with ground and air patrols over areas vulnerable to wildfires.

The air patrols are being carried out by manned and unmanned aircraft, he said.

“The armed forces are always present in difficult times, and so they are now,” Panagiotopoulos said.

A major fire that broke out Tuesday was ravaging forests on the island of Evia, near the Greek mainland, leading to the evacuation of villages. The coastguard evacuated nearly 90 people from a beach.

More than 160 firefighters, three planes and three helicopters, as well as five ground teams and 57 vehicles, were deployed to douse the wildfire in Evia.

France’s civil protection agency said 40 French firefighters and 8 tonnes of material had headed to Greece late Wednesday to assist in Evia.

To the north of the Greek capital, a forest fire that encroached into northern suburbs, burning dozens of homes and forcing thousands of people to flee, continued to burn.

The fire, which started on Tuesday, was no longer threatening inhabited areas but was still decimating forest areas at the foot of Mount Parnitha. Forty firefighters from Cyprus had joined Greek colleagues in that blaze.

Greek scientists said the total destruction in just three days this month in Greece exceeded 50 percent of the average area burned in the country in previous years.

An Athens Observatory report said an estimated 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) went up in smoke between Sunday and Wednesday, compared with 10,400 hectares (25,700 acres) in the whole of last year.

Source: News Agencies